Posting some of what I’ve been reading. I noticed I read far less than I did 10 years ago, and starting keeping a log of it as a spur to read much more. Might be of interest to others, also useful for myself to keep records. I feel much smarter when I read lots. Quite a bit of my personal reading has been for an upcoming blog post, and isn’t covered here, regarding Zen & some related topics. Forcing myself to prepare something for a third party reader, and the scrutiny of the internet, helps in various ways.
Also in future it will be a useful place to post predictions + calibrate my thinking, though I won’t be posting such opinions whilst in my current role.
Note: posting here doesn’t mean that I agree with it!
Table of Contents
- General stuff
- ‘All possible views about humanity’s future are wild’
- Major quantum algorithm advance, speeding up Shor’s algorithm.
- Re-reading New Yorker article on a major maths advance made by someone in their fifties (historically rare)
- Samuel Hammond – How Congress Ruined the Endless Frontier Act
- Old video on nuclear propulsion
- Scientific American – AI Designs Quantum Physics Experiments Beyond What Any Human Has Conceived
- Noahpinion – Answering the techno-pessimists, part 4 – is science slowing down?
- Fiction + Poetry
I’ve been filling a knowledge void by studying economics. I realised I seem to learn best partly by reading lots of books on the same topic, rather than reading one book v carefully. Perhaps it helps do a kind of Principal Components Analysis and identify the core features….. I’ve always been skeptical of economics as a discipline, and still am, but its an important language to learn in my role. I’m working my way through the following. I’m also using it as an experiment in different forms of note taking – I might blog later on on both economics & the results of the note taking experiments (which have been ongoing for 10 years but I’ve recently systematised!). Economics poses interesting questions that make you see the world differently, even if I’m not confident it can answer them in a rigorous way…. its seems to be more art than science. But so is life and that’s no reason not to live….
Moretti’s on New Geography of Jobs is a stand out so far.
Robert Reich’s 2019 piece in the Guardian on the US economic system compared to China is interesting/provocative
“The American economic system is focused on maximizing shareholder returns. And it’s achieving that goal: on Friday, the S&P 500 notched a new all-time high.………
At the core of China’s economy, by contrast, are state-owned companies that borrow from state banks at artificially low rates. These state firms balance the ups and downs of the economy, spending more when private companies are reluctant to do so.“
Samo Burja on the merits of status signalling exercises, and the prestigification of engineering by Musk/Bezos et al
Samo Burja is a thinker I’ve been reading more and more of, he thinks about why civilisations don’t last forever. ( longer piece to read soon – https://samoburja.com/gft/)
[Re Musk launching a Tesla into space etc] – When examining the exceptional and the powerful, nearly everyone underestimates how reasonable their actions are. What some denounce as whimsy or waste is often a wise investment that solves real and difficult problems, sometimes in very prosocial ways. Perhaps we can find better ways to solve some of these problems, but these attacks are mere wishful thinking, resting on the assumption that some unstated alternative will naturally spring into existence.
Status is one of the irreplaceable currencies whose necessary transfer is often denounced in this way. Michael Sauder et al. define status as the relative respect and patterns of deference accorded to people, groups and organizations by wider society. I think this is basically right. People cannot engage in any common projects without some commonly agreed-upon deference to people, groups or organizations, nor can they engage in common projects without someone or something holding, and yes, spending status. Status is a coordination mechanism, and this makes it valuable.The celebration of such people isn’t merely a personal reward: rather, it is how we replenish this social capital of engineering, which in turn powers the social fabric that enables these people to do what they do. Without it, you can’t go to space.
Guzey – Intelligence Killed Genius
Piece by my friend Alexey arguing that our modern notions of intelligence has killed the creative and disruptive genius.
“The first requirement to do genius-level work is to not be afraid to do things only geniuses can do, i.e. to have the internal feeling of being better than everyone else in the world.
The concept of intelligence kills this feeling. However smart you are, there is someone who is smarter than you. And if there’s someone smarter than you are, it doesn’t make sense to work on the hardest possible problems and to try to change the world – it’s the smartest person’s job.”
“Genius is like synesthesia. It’s the stray connections between parts of the brain that were not supposed to be connected that make your picture completely different, but might leave you just 2-4 sd to the right in g, orthogonal to intelligence.”
Paul Graham, Fierce Nerds
I quite liked Paul Graham’s article/biography on Fierce Nerds, a special type of competitive/assertive nerd and the good they can do…..
“When you combine all these qualities in sufficient quantities, the result is quite formidable. The most vivid example of fierce nerds in action may be James Watson’s The Double Helix. The first sentence of the book is “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood,” and the portrait he goes on to paint of Crick is the quintessential fierce nerd: brilliant, socially awkward, competitive, independent-minded, overconfident. But so is the implicit portrait he paints of himself. Indeed, his lack of social awareness makes both portraits that much more realistic, because he baldly states all sorts of opinions and motivations that a smoother person would conceal. And moreover it’s clear from the story that Crick and Watson’s fierce nerdiness was integral to their success. Their independent-mindedness caused them to consider approaches that most others ignored, their overconfidence allowed them to work on problems they only half understood (they were literally described as “clowns” by one eminent insider), and their impatience and competitiveness got them to the answer ahead of two other groups that would otherwise have found it within the next year, if not the next several months.”
Youtube – what does a nuclear bomb sound like?
Quite an interesting video on what a nuclear bomb actually sounds like. Answer is its not like you would think if you go on prior videos to set expectation, most videos dont have real audio, its usually dramatic sound effects. Try thinking from first principles. For some odd reason I find this video fascinating, eery, and disturbing.
Guardian on Wellcome’s Photography prize 2021
‘Disconnected’ & ‘An Elegy for the Death of Hamun Hashem Shakeri’ are two favourites. – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2021/jun/23/wellcome-photography-prize-2021-shortlist-health-challenges-in-pictures?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
Jack McDonald – What if Military AI sucks?
This is an interesting contrary take on the role of AI in transforming war. Jack McDonald is a lecturer in war studies at KCL. Essentially argues that the failures/hype around autonomous vehicles should make us skeptical about the transformation of war by AI. Argues that key social decision making factors re-ethics will be difficult to automate, moving humans to validation stages (worker reallocation not replacement). The argument seems to be around one of timescale – ie, its a long time till AI can supplant key aspects of human judgement. Note the piece is very focussed on targeting issues, other aspects such as automated cyber intrusion not covered. Worth noting also it doesn’t touch on Intelligence aspects, nor ‘gray zone’ warfare: its very focussed on kinetic kill operations. And it also feels, in its focus on asymmetric warfare in urban environments, focussed on the war of past 20 years not great power wars.
“I see this as a hard limit: most of the concepts we use to make sense of war are too nebulous for machines to efficiently automate. Attempting to use AI for strategic goals will inevitably lead outcomes akin to a paperclip maximizer – where the modelling of a necessarily indeterminite set of desired goals leads to unwanted optimal solutions. Similarly, things like “combatant” or “civilian” are likely never going to be amenable to machines – at least in the sense that human beings approach them.”
“Military objects that are not easy for machines to distinguish as military objects (e.g. a Toyota truck with a heavy machine gun on the back) will be less vulnerable to these systems than things that are easily distinguishable (tanks, large artillery pieces, etc).
I am not predicting the death of the tank, by the way, only that in order to survive, machine-recognisable pieces of kit will need a protective bubble that defeats LAWS that function akin to loitering munitions, whatever form that takes. I’d imagine that such a bubble would be expensive to generate and maintain, so this hunch is particularly likely to apply to middle powers who might not be able to afford it.”
“Even in the case of an AI washout, I think one of the long-term effects of increased AI use is to drive warfare to urban locations. This is for the simple reason that any opponent facing down autonomous systems is best served by “clutter” that impedes its use.”
“My technological predictions here are pretty limited by design: small further advances in computer vision, weaker versions of bleeding-edge weapon technologies being developed by middle powers, commercial object recognition technologies that can be bodged into functional weapon systems by non-state actors. This is a world of kinda-good loitering munitions used by non-state actors, rather than unsupervised uncrewed ground vehicles coordinating assaults on the basis of higher level commands by human beings. What does warfare look like when an insurgent can simply lob an anti-personnel loitering munition at the FOB on the hill, rather than pestering it with ineffective mortar fire? From the perspective of states, and those who defend a state-centric international order, it’s not good.”
Newport on lessons from the pandemic for DeepWork
An article by Cal Newport on DeepWork during the pandemic – https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/remote-work-not-from-home (see my post on Deep Work during the pandemic from April 2020)
I wrote in my blog on ‘lessons for the bunker’ about Deep Work – purposefully isolating yourself and focussing for periods of 30 mins+ as the critical skill to master for modern work. Newport has an interesting update on this, saying ‘work near home’ is the optimal approach.
We need to consider a third option for our current moment, and if we look to authors for inspiration then one such alternative emerges: work from near home.
Quite interesting work routine from Maya Angelou contained in there – “Benchley isn’t the only author to abandon a charming home to work nearby in objectively worse conditions. Maya Angelou, for example, would rent hotel rooms to write, asking the staff to remove all artwork from the walls and enter each day only to empty the wastebaskets. She’d arrive at six-thirty in the morning, with a Bible, a yellow pad, and a bottle of sherry. No writing desk was necessary; she’d instead work lying across the bed, once explaining to George Plimpton, in an interview, how this habit led one of her elbows to become “absolutely encrusted” with calluses.”….. Angelou said of it: “I don’t want anything in there,” Angelou said, when elaborating on her spartan hotel habit. “I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything.”
Also Steinbeck: “John Steinbeck went one step further. Late in his career, he spent his summers at a two-acre property in Sag Harbor (which was put on the market this past winter for $17.9 million). Steinbeck told his editor, Elizabeth Otis, that he would escape this waterfront paradise to instead write on his fishing boat, balancing a notebook on a portable desk.”
Newport cites an interesting UK start-up, flown.com, that allows you to rent places for DeepWork.
The China Study reading and a few related articles.
Regarding diet and food….. quitting drinking permanently transformed my health, mental clarity, and mood/calmness. I stopped being fat also…. So I resurrected my interest in how diet alters your body, that I had whilst sick. This time my goal is to have greater focus. Read some articles on China Study, trying to break my habit of buying entire books when an article might be easier after my father said I couldn’t house any more books at the family house (I have well over two thousand books stuffed in an attic conversion)…….
Experiment: I’ll follow China Di for 6 months starting 21st July 2021. Note: I’ve noticed my focus is reliably worse after drinking diet soda. So I’ll quite that too.
“launched via a partnership between Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine, with data collected over a span of 20 years.”
“The study they created included 367 variables, 65 counties in China, and 6,500 adults (who completed questionnaires, blood tests, etc.). “When we were done, we had more than 8,000 statistically significant associations between lifestyle, diet, and disease variables.” They also incorporate a wealth of additional research data from other sources.”
“Animal protein promotes the growth of cancer. The book’s author T. Colin Campbell, PhD, grew up on a dairy farm, so he regularly enjoyed a wholesome glass of milk. Not anymore. Dr. Campbell says that in multiple, peer-reviewed animal studies, researchers discovered that they could actually turn the growth of cancer cells on and off by raising and lowering doses of casein, the main protein found in cow’s milk.”
“You should be worried about poor nutrition more than pesticides. The food you eat affects the way your cells interact with carcinogens, making them more or less dangerous, the authors explain. “The results of these, and many other studies, showed nutrition to be far more important in controlling cancer promotion than the dose of the initiating carcinogen,” they state.”
“Heart disease can be reversed through nutrition. The authors share the work of other respected physicians that they say supports their own data’s conclusions, and some of the most interesting are on heart disease. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD, a physician and researcher at the best cardiac center in the country, The Cleveland Clinic, treated 18 patients with established coronary disease using a whole food, plant-based diet. Not only did the intervention stop the progression of the disease, but 70 percent of the patients saw an opening of their clogged arteries.”
“Carbs are not (always) the enemy. Highly-processed, refined carbohydrates are bad for you, but plant foods are full of healthy carbs, the authors say. Research shows that diets like Atkins or South Beach can have dangerous side effects. While they may result in short-term weight loss, you’ll be sacrificing long-term health.”
“Cancer isn’t the only disease plants can ward off. It’s not just cancer and heart disease that respond to a whole food, plant-based diet, the authors say. Their research showed it may also help protect you from diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, bone, kidney, eye, and brain diseases. Are you getting that plants are pretty miraculous by now?”
“You don’t need to eat meat. “There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants,” the authors say. Protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals—you name it, they’ve got it, along with major health benefits.” Would be good to see the ‘virtually no’ broken out – what is lacking?
“The takeaway is simple: Eat plants for health. “People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest,” the authors state. Whether you’re going vegan or not, they suggest putting as many plants on your plate as possible at every meal.”
Why is it so hard to walk into a station and not find food that is raw plant-based, without lots of rice/potatoes stuffed in? Startup idea: a shop chain that serves only pure vegan food, and you buy memberships so you have to eat there. Exploiting pre-commitment. A bit like hello-fresh but for office workers. Volume via subscription->cheaper cost. Might be a useful experiment to run through numbers on whether this could work. The idea here is you are not selling to them cheaper food per se, but a commitment to eat healthy via pre-commitment, as when people buy a gym membership in order to commit to going to the gym.
This study doesn’t eliminate seasonal change – maybe hunter gatherers lived off the land in summer then in winter fasted and had occassional binges on large animals?
“A new scientific review has found that steaming your vegetables may boost their nutritional value, making them even healthier. Lettuce explain. (Sorry. We had to.)Researchers analyzed 21 studies that looked at how different cooking methods affect the nutritional density of vegetables, Men’s Health reports, and steaming beet out the competition. (OK, we’re done with the puns now.) Steaming can increase polyphenol content (a type of antioxidant that may fend off cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other health concerns) by 52 percent, since it uses a gentle heating process and doesn’t submerge the vegetables in water, according to Elizabeth H. Jeffrey, a professor of nutritional sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign……
Some tweets in lifestyle/self space:
Napoleon’s definition of a military genius: “The man who can do the average thing when everyone else around him is losing his mind.”
This tweet reflects a lesson I learnt (or partly learnt) over a few years of writing. Don’t try to be showy!
Paul Graham – How to Work Hard
“There are three ingredients in great work: natural ability, practice, and effort. You can do pretty well with just two, but to do the best work you need all three: you need great natural ability and to have practiced a lot and to be trying very hard.”
At 74, Wodehouse wrote
with each new book of mine I have, as I say, the feeling that this time I have picked a lemon in the garden of literature. A good thing, really, I suppose. Keeps one up on one’s toes and makes one rewrite every sentence ten times. Or in many cases twenty times.
“It’s straightforward to work hard if you have clearly defined, externally imposed goals, as you do in school. There is some technique to it: you have to learn not to lie to yourself, not to procrastinate (which is a form of lying to yourself), not to get distracted, and not to give up when things go wrong. But this level of discipline seems to be within the reach of quite young children, if they want it.
What I’ve learned since I was a kid is how to work toward goals that are neither clearly defined nor externally imposed. You’ll probably have to learn both if you want to do really great things.”
“The most basic level of which is simply to feel you should be working without anyone telling you to. Now, when I’m not working hard, alarm bells go off. I can’t be sure I’m getting anywhere when I’m working hard, but I can be sure I’m getting nowhere when I’m not, and it feels awful.”
“That limit varies depending on the type of work and the person. I’ve done several different kinds of work, and the limits were different for each. My limit for the harder types of writing or programming is about five hours a day. Whereas when I was running a startup, I could work all the time. At least for the three years I did it; if I’d kept going much longer, I’d probably have needed to take occasional vacations.”
“Some people figure out what to do as children and just do it, like Mozart. But others, like Newton, turn restlessly from one kind of work to another. Maybe in retrospect we can identify one as their calling — we can wish Newton spent more time on math and physics and less on alchemy and theology — but this is an illusion induced by hindsight bias.”
“along with measuring both how hard you’re working and how well you’re doing, you have to think about whether you should keep working in this field or switch to another. If you’re working hard but not getting good enough results, you should switch. It sounds simple expressed that way, but in practice it’s very difficult.”
“The best test of whether it’s worthwhile to work on something is whether you find it interesting. That may sound like a dangerously subjective measure, but it’s probably the most accurate one you’re going to get.”
‘All possible views about humanity’s future are wild’
Like a galaxy wide version of sagan’s pale blue dot, which is one of my favourite pieces of writing.
Major quantum algorithm advance, speeding up Shor’s algorithm.
“So computer scientists have attempted to calculate the resources such a quantum computer might need and then work out how long it will be until such a machine can be built. And the answer has always been decades. Today, that thinking needs to be revised thanks to the work of Craig Gidney at Google in Santa Barbara and Martin Ekerå at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. These guys have found a more efficient way for quantum computers to perform the code-breaking calculations, reducing the resources they require by orders of magnitude.”
One of my favourite articles, and gives me hope that ageing will not render me imminently brain dead, one of my long term paranoias since I noticed in my teens almost all great maths, poetry, chess, music etc is done by 20-40 somethings.
Samuel Hammond – How Congress Ruined the Endless Frontier Act
One of the best articles ive read this month re science policy. Aside from telling the story of what became of the Endless Frontiers Act, there is an interesting example of how the applied/discovery dichotomy is wrong:
“Solar companies spend less than 1% of their revenue on R&D. Exponential cost reductions have instead come through a learning-by-doing process, as those same companies scale-up their production. This isn’t a story of pure scale economies, however. Rather, the need to scale forces genuine process innovations; things like a production engineer realizing, through hands-on experience, that they could improve efficiency 10% by tweaking this or that chemical solvent. Thus the notion that we first do basic science first and then translate those findings into applied technology isn’t just wrong — it’s often just the reverse. The solar panel production boom has even inspired some scientists to talk of “Solar-Driven Chemistry,” as insights derived from the solar industry’s learning-by-doing continue to spill-over into new ideas for basic research.”
There are also some interesting sections on how ‘embedded autonomy’ – setting of high level objectives by central government then letting decentralised action do the detail – gives China an edge and how its reflected in other successful industrial policies.
“The second edge China has over the United States isn’t so much technological as institutional. While often characterized as a command-and-control style economy, the day-to-day of Chinese industrial policy is surprisingly decentralized. Five year plans like “Made in China 2025” mostly serve to set high-level targets and aspirations, helping to coordinate the expectations of bureaucrats and industry partners at multiple levels of government.
A similar story holds true for the successful examples of industrial policy in Korea, Japan, and the United States. As Steven Vogel argues in Level Up America: The Case for Industrial Policy and How to Do it Right, investments in technology and industrial capacity work best when done through institutions with “embedded autonomy.” The central government should set clear, outcome-oriented goals with mechanisms to evaluate progress, but leave implementation and execution to mission-driven organizations with the autonomy to take risks and act nimbly. Embedded autonomy is particularly important when the agency in question has “a strategic position as the central nodes in networks of collaboration among industrial sectors and firms,” and might thus be vulnerable to special interest capture. “An industrial policy driven by bold public missions accompanied with deliberate communication strategies,” writes Vogel, “would be less vulnerable to capture and more amenable to effective implementation.”
Old video on nuclear propulsion
Roughly double the output of conventional rockets. Origins in the 1950s. A Nobel Laureate I was talking to in recent years said this might be his next venture…. Will update when I know!
Scientific American – AI Designs Quantum Physics Experiments Beyond What Any Human Has Conceived
Noahpinion – Answering the techno-pessimists, part 4 – is science slowing down?
Makes a number of arguments re-tech slowdown being illusory in part. One argument is that whilst individual fields may slow down due to low hanging fruit being picked, others come along such as CRISPR (ie, progress is sigmoidal, with new fields popping up). They also point out the limitation of the Collison/Nielsen argument, with becoming less efficient not being the same as slowing down. (Note Alexey Guzey has a similar view that its becoming more inefficient, but not slowing down (in life sciences – https://guzey.com/how-life-sciences-actually-work/)
Combining this with some reading of the ‘the power of creative destruction’. Also worth noting that secondary innovations mean we don’t perceive life changing innovations as being recent – secondary innovations being the tweaks/refinements needed to make a technology work, like long distance cabling for electricity.. Ie, any technology altering our lives will seem old.
Fiction + Poetry
Been reading these two. More on this later when I post re-memorising poems + memory palaces.