Recent reading – end July 2021

I’m publishing this now to get back to a monthly schedule. Less reading than a usual post so just doing it as a data dump. Next month I’ll largely be reading Zen stuff as I’m off on a retreat. Closing my mind off for a while from the buzz! This list is not comprehensive.

I have imposed a ban on buying books, as as of 31st July I bought 73 books this month, and a large pile in my basket ready to buy. This is unsustainable, though month is a clear outlier… But it makes me realise how much I like to read and how little time left in my life I have to read them……

PS, just after I posted this, I realised Newton & Nimbus have come and fallen asleep on my foot. So cute! And as I don’t want to disturb I will have to sit here and read for as long as they rest…..

Table of Contents

Nick Kolakowski – Medium article on google/apple tensions on WFH

A piece on how Apple/Google are having employee/executive tension re-ending WFH.

Seems a sensible development might be WFH days synchronising across the company? And will different companies align their WFH days? Will we end up moving to a situation with 3 work from work, 2 work from home, and 2 weekend days?

At some of tech’s biggest companies, tensions around remote and hybrid work could be on the rise. Many employees want to work from home permanently, without taking any kind of pay cut — while executives want their teams back in the physical office as much as possible.

Many of those employees who do manage to secure permanent remote-work privileges may also see their salaries slashed, with the amount of decrease determined by a custom-built internal tool.
Google isn’t alone in weathering this controversy, of course. Various other tech giants, including Facebook and VMware, have announced that any employees deciding to move from Silicon Valley will see a lighter paycheck as a result.

Repeated surveys have found that the majority of technologists actually like the idea of hybrid work. In Dice’s 2021 Technologist Sentiment Report, some 85 percent of technologists found the prospect of hybrid work anywhere from somewhat to extremely desirable. That included 94 percent of younger technologists (i.e., those between 18 and 34 years old), who clearly see the physical office as an opportunity for collaboration and mentorship opportunities. Other Dice surveys have found that technologists generally aren’t willing to take a pay cut for remote work — and only 12 percent have said their companies are slashing pay in exchange for permanent work-from-home.

ProfSerious on Culture/Control tradeoffs in organisational management

I worked closely with Antony when he was NatSec Chief Scientific Adviser. Shades of Alan Kay here re degrees of control vs self-organisation…..

A piece re-body chronotypes and exercise – Dolphins, Lions, Wolves, Bears, and when to exercise…..

Nature – Massive DNA ‘Borg’ structures perplex scientists

“Researchers say they have discovered unique and exciting DNA strands in the mud — others aren’t sure of their novelty.” Not yet peer reviewed.

Named Borgs after the sci-fi creatures after a suggestion by the lead scientist’s son over dinner, these entities are argued to be a novel kind of extrachromosomal elements (ECE), ie a new kind of DNA structure like plasmids in bacteria. Argued to be much larger than existing – perhaps 1/3 the entire genetic material in an organism. They seem to be associated with Archaea, a kind of bacteria. They were found in east river, Colorado. Currently they cannot be cultured in the lab (a common problem with many kinds of bacteria).

Scientists collect water samples from below the bed of the East River, Colorado with forests and mountains in the distance
River in Colorado where the proposed Borgs were found

Borgs seem to house many genes needed for entire metabolic processes, including digesting methane, says Banfield. She describes these collections as “a toolbox” that might super-charge the abilities of Methanoperedens.

So what makes a Borg a Borg? In addition to their remarkable size, Borgs share several structural features: they’re linear, not circular as many ECEs are; they have mirrored repetitive sequences at each end of the strand; and they have many other repetitive sequences both within and between the presumptive genes.

“They’ve made an interesting observation,” says systems biologist Nitin Baliga, at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Washington. But he cautions that when researchers sift through fragments of many genomes and piece them together, as Banfield’s team has done, it’s possible to make errors. Finding Borgs in cultured Methanoperedens will be necessary for the finding to be considered definitive, he adds.

Form Energy claims to have made an iron battery for cheap long-term storage

Folk who know their stuff say a big deal if true, a battery cheap enough to fully replace fossil fuels in combination with renewables. Too heavy to use in cars however.

Q: does anyone know why simply lifting heavy weights isn’t a useful form of battery, ie use gravitational potential energy? Lift it up, then lower it down again when power needed…….. why don’t we just use this? not enough energy density?

On the sociology of mathematics research, and its subjectiveness in practice

One thing I think about a fair amount these days is how different fields of research operate sociologically. These two links/tweets were very interesting in that respect (first is a thread). The first outlines how in number theory, very few understand all the relevant things they must rely on in the field even for one of their own papers, so often rely on patching together what are to them black boxes.

Interesting in the second link that whilst we think of mathematics as a kind of opposite to the problems of the rest of academia (with false papers etc), actually mathematics often knows whats true or false solely by what ‘elders’ say, as papers can take many months to read and understand (pg4/5 of the second link).

A quote from within: “Voevodsky: “A technical argument by a trusted author, which is hard to check and looks similar to arguments known to be correct, is hardly ever checked in detail.””

I never realised maths was so subjective in the way it is actually practiced…

The outdoors and its benefits – spending time outside is good for your brain

I’d been meaning to read a book called ‘the nature fix’, about an emerging science of the benefits of nature for healing and wellbeing. This study, preliminary, is interesting also with respect to fluctuation of brain size over rapid timescales. If you need a nude, quitting drinking increases brain size over a period of a week (maybe dehydration related, maybe functional activity, maybe both)…

Conor Feehly – Discovery Magazine Brains Might Sync As People Interact — and That Could Upend Consciousness Research

Haven’t evaluated this technically.

Patronage & Research: On Medici and Thiel by Rohit, Medium post

I’ve been meaning to read more broadly about the medici (I once stayed in one of their old villas on the eve of a wedding…).

I’m not saying that the Renaissance geniuses who came together in great concentration during Medici’s reign are the same as the Thiel Fellows. What I am suggesting is that the idea of patronage seems to not have transmitted all that much through the centuries. What seems the simplest trade-off; I pay some of my enormous sums of money to get exposure to smart people, and increase my social stature and secure posterity by helping them achieve greatness, seems to have disappeared.

…….Individual patrons are far more risk seeking than organisations, especially organisations at the later, scaled, stages of its lifecycle. If there’s anything that’s particularly emblematic of this problem it would be the Ivy League universities. Extraordinarily prestigious but extremely ossified. YC probably isn’t there yet, but then they’re only a decade and half old!

…… The modern version also seems to revolve a fair bit around putting your name on buildings, mostly museums and university departments, but little beyond that. There is no movement from the larger scale to the human scale. There’s little interest in the actual details or the specific people who are supposedly leading the research work. The aura that comes from being a renowned patron has now separated from the actual patronage.

It is precisely this increased institutionalisation of what used to be more eclectic that’s rubbed away the corners of that made it interesting. A substantial number of top scientists across fields claim that they would never get past their respective doctoral/ departmental/ review committees today, and this reduction of iconoclasticism is a miss.

The theme of Patronage hits on one of Alexey’s best blog posts, reviving patronage and revolutionary industrial research – its well worth a read:

Foreign Affairs – Dan Wang – China’s Sputnik Moment

China’s Sputnik moment was not alphaGo, but the Trump tech ban – which forced entrepeneurial Chinese companies to work with the state companies, not with US, thus driving self sufficiency. Cian Martin’s comment is helpful:

Ie, the only answer to an adversary competing with you on tech is to up your game and make sure you don’t let key assets get poached.

The Chinese government has long had twin ambitions for industrial policy: to be more economically self-sufficient and to achieve technological greatness. For the most part, it has relied on government ministries and state-owned enterprises to pursue these goals, and for the most part, it has come up short. In semiconductor production, for example, China has barely crossed the starting line. Rather, China’s private entrepreneurial firms have driven the bulk of the country’s technological success, even though their interests have not always aligned with the state’s goal of strengthening domestic technology. Beijing has, for example, recently begun cracking down on certain consumer Internet companies and online education firms, in part to redirect the country’s efforts towards other strategic technologies such as computer chips. This has meant that China’s most impressive technological achievements—building state-of-the-art capabilities in renewable energy, consumer Internet services, electronics, and industrial equipment—have as often been driven in spite of state interference as they have because of it.

Then came U.S. President Donald Trump. By sanctioning entrepreneurial Chinese companies, he forced them to stop relying on U.S. technologies such as semiconductors. Now, most of them are trying to source domestic alternatives or design the necessary technologies themselves. In other words, Trump’s gambit accomplished what the Chinese government never could: aligning private companies’ incentives with the state’s goal of economic self-sufficiency.

The piece is useful for milestones in Chinese tech strategy, and also highlighting the weaknesses in Chinese Industrial policy. I won’t post my broader thoughts for obvious reasons but its worth reading.

Particularly interesting section for a variety of reasons re-‘purchaser of first resort’ style government:

The combined efforts of China’s state drive and its innovative industry will accelerate the country’s technological advancement. In the 1960s, integrated circuits were developed when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was willing to pay any price for technology that could send astronauts to the moon and bring them safely back. Today, the U.S. government is putting Huawei in NASA’s position: a cash-rich organization willing to pay for critical components on the basis of performance rather than cost.

Bryar and Carr’s ‘Working Backwards: insights, stories, and secrets from Inside Amazon’

I bought this book for the ‘working backwards’ section on Bezos docs, which a colleague adopted at work. But I ended up skimming over it, and finding a section which was highly relevant (the 6 pager), which I then turned to during an afternoon when nothing was working, read, blogged about, then used and made huge progress on said issue. Its available here. I’ll try and blog on some other interesting sections (single threaded leadership, for example).


Also read book on COVID…. I won’t comment on it now as it gets political…

Some tweets:

Reminds me of a similar tweet re doing research – find the biggest unsolved problem you face and solve it. Position the rest of your work around that. Then, in downtime, think long-term and strategise. For me at least, I otherwise get stuck on the latter part, not the solving crux of the problem. I endlessly try to find the perfect long-term plan, and not get stuck in. Working on it…

Regarding the news US (again) lost in its fictional war games exercises re China/Russia. Curious: do these war-games include the full complement of Black Budget capabilities? I presume they keep some stuff back, which might be reassuring a little.

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