On Safe Spaces

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philosophy

As humans, we’ve had to survive calamities – droughts, blizzards, famines and hungry predators – some of which happened concurrently. If I could go back in time, I would give early homo sapiens (meaning wise man in latin) a huge round of applause. We defeated the enemies outside and within through developing larger brains and improving our social coordination within our circles. The advent of our social ability is thought to have started when groups of primates started hunting together during the day versus acting as nocturnal creatures – we belonged in these ephermal groups in contrast to pairs.

As highlighted from Schulz, the author, of the Science Now paper:

“It’s easier to sneak around at night when you’re alone, she notes, but when you start hunting during the day, when predators can more easily spot you, there’s safety in numbers.”

As a definite optimist, I’m of the opinion that the world is objectively the best now than it has ever been before. More than two billion people have been brought out of poverty and child mortality rates are at record lows among many others. Productivity rates are also the highest they’ve ever been, so humans are doing less repetitive tasks than aiming for subsistence.

The antithesis would be that the world hasn’t gotten much better for people relative to centuries ago. Depression rates are quite high in the western world and rates of suicide among adolescents have exploded in countries like South Korea. Do objective standards matter when many people are wondering who we are or why we exit on this pale blue dot?

To stop this feeling, we’ve let people feel that it’s alright, downright encouraged actually, to exist within the bountiful cornucopia of their own wishes. For many they eventually venture past the walls of their palace in a Buddha-manner and they view the world for what it really is: uncaring and harsh. This seems to shock people to the point where they yearn to go back within their safe spaces of thought and culture.

Rather than having people delve more deeply into these matters, we’ve decided to shelter them by allowing these emotional safe spaces; we then wonder why our emotional issues are only aggrandizing across the West. I would say that a lot of this behavior stems from a child’s home life: their parents coddle their child from the perils of the outside world, leading to the exact consequence they seek to avoid. If the mother can help little Billy from seeing the true colors of the world for as long as possible, then he’ll definitely end up as a well-adjusted figure who is a volunteer coach for his kids soccer games on the weekends and diligently pays his taxes come tax season.


 

But where did the notion of safe spaces originate from? Moira Kenney, an activist within the LGBT field, harked the term back to the the gay culture that was birthed in the 1960s – people could release their sexuality without becoming ostracized by their respective friend or work circles.

As Malcolm Harris would say:

According to Kenney, the term “safe space” first gets used consistently in the 60s and 70s women’s movement, where safety began to mean distance from men and patriarchal thought and was used to describe “consciousness raising” groups.

If safe spaces were indeed the way forward, history wouldn’t be littered with examples of progress happening solely because some individuals were brave enough to avoid the madness of crowds. It’s astounding that the Civil Rights Movement only came to fruition nearly 60 years ago – at that time, it was considered so contrarian as to be preposterous. Blacks and whites using the same water fountain, really? Another example of this would be the invention of artificial cooling, using ice for lowering body temperatures and for consumption in food.

Frederic Tudor, The man who removed the location arbitrage with ice, believed that there was a demand for artificial cold. So, naturally he did what any of us would – he bought a ship and started transporting ice from the Northern parts of America to the West Indies.

When asked why he wanted to transport ice, Tudor said:

“In a country where at some seasons of the year the heat is almost unsupportable,” he wrote in a subsequent entry, “where at times the common necessary of life, water, cannot be had but in a tepid state—Ice must be considered as out doing most other luxuries.”

Innovation happens within networks that necessarily force interaction and change – how else do we know what’s out there? Perhaps the sign of safe spaces rising is a harbinger for a world that is in a safety bubble where we cannot trust our neighbors and we value security above all else. Then safe spaces result in situations that expose these differences even more: it’s only through contact that we can start to connect with others and the whole range of their emotions.

Listening to the media about domestic policy and other countries only sews the seeds of distrust. This is why nobody “understands” how Trump or Brexit occurred – they were locked in their cozy safe spaces. That would be in align with current macroeconomic conditions in Japan, Germany, and Switzerland et al.

When you interview people about to die, they often say that they wished they had lived a life in the manner they chose versus the one society guilted them into having. Metaphorically, you want to die on your own sword. I think safe spaces are a huge part of that. It’s safe to go to university, have a job, a family, and then die. It’s the inertia of life – a life we perhaps didn’t want. But if you have ever aspired for anything more, it helps to know that the road less taken is not and will never be safe.

Overall, I think it is worth the effort of leaving our comfort zones in a world that advises the opposite. Just another reason to not listen to advice. It is easier said than done, but even taking a different route to work or exploring a different part of the city in your free time should expand your mental models.

Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone), from Amazing Spider-Man 2, says it succinctly:

“There will be days where you feel all alone, and that’s when hope is needed most. No matter how buried it gets, or how lost you feel, you must promise me that you will hold on to hope. […]  And even if we fail, what better way is there to live?”

On Deciphering BS

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philosophy

It’s become near impossible to decipher what is true and false anymore, especially in the realm of current events.

I believe the term current events is even a bit of a misnomer –  the contemporary world is the result of geopolitical decisions decades ago. Swaths of people dying of cancer in an area could be the result of fracking in years past – the release of Benzene into nature would be a plausible cause for these deaths.

“History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.”

When I tell people I don’t read the news, they look at me like I’ve committed a grade A felony, similar to stealing a rich lady’s Siamese cat (probably named Gerald.) One of my favorite Tim Ferris podcasts was the one with the Princeton Review founder, Adam Robinson. He said that he knows to look deeper into issues in two scenarios: when everyone believes they understand something or the opposite, people admit they don’t understand anything about a concept.

News exists in both of those categories: we think just by reading a distilled one-pager, the intricacies of Israeli-Palestinian affairs become simple. How many people in our own lives would say, “the solution to (an incredibly complicated topic) is obviously ‘x.'”  What does this behavior say about people/ Western culture?

It’s impossible for me to read the news and figure out the information I need that aids me in my daily life. The prevailing argument is that if you read the news, you somehow become more knowledgeable about the world. Indeed, what tends to be the case is that we skim the news, utilize confirmation bias, and come out even more ingrained with what we think we know to be true.

The field of epistemology has been around for centuries – skeptical empiricism even longer. What is a skeptical empiricist you ask?

To put it simply, it’s

“one who considers historical evidence only as a PARTIAL indicator of probabilities, as opposed to naive empiricists who consider historical evidence as the complete basis for predicting future events.”

We’ve always been obsessed with finding truth in a world that doesn’t exist in black or white. Your life can go down the gutter if you’re too gullible (like myself), but a healthy dose of skepticism never hurt anyone. That isn’t to say you should be pessimistic about everything, yet reasoning from first principles can only help you, not hurt.

 

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 2.30.16 PM

Definitely worth a read: https://amzn.to/2AvPuMk

 

After having read Ryan Holiday’s new book, Conspiracy, one takeaway I learned is that the media has been top dog in America for quite a while.

As Mark Twain said:

“I never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

When you have such unfettered power, why would you not use it in your own favor? Absolute power corrupts absolutely. If the world is a machine and different economies are comprised of mechanical gears, the gears are oiled with incentives. Economics is the study of incentives and so are our irrational behaviors and decision making patterns.

Maybe the real purpose of consuming news is that it is a conspicuous good. A conspicuous good is analogous to a Prada bag: a want, not a need to demonstrate our status to others. Objectively, the Prada bag does not have a 10x quality margin while the price would be 10x more than that of the rest.

However in an incredibly status-oriented society, our survival instincts make us believe that the conspicuous good is a necessity within our social groups to survive.

In this same vein, we read news to have the chance in conversation to prove to others that we are also intelligent. Of course, not true of everyone – some are addicted to the dopamine from online article consumption, without feeling the need to bring it up incessantly. And we know how intelligence is the new status symbol: everyone is a “nerd” now because it’s the cool thing to do, an ultimate conspicuous good.

A quick thought experiment along these lines; assume you’re trapped in a desert and you see a genie pop up in front of you. The genie, Jim, offers you a deal: he’ll have three glasses of water appear out of thin air, but two of them will be poisoned. If you guess which one it is, you get all three glasses – otherwise you can refuse and get one glass of water. Which one would you pick?

I wouldn’t bet because there’s no information I can use as leverage to deduce the right answer. This is the same with news consumption and any other field where this is a low signal to noise ratio. We have no way of knowing what exactly the effects of Dutch foreign affairs, Venezuelan socialism, or how Hillary Clinton hid her health issues from voters during the 2016 presidential campaign  – among many other things. “I’m with her” seems to not hold so strongly now as she apparently wasn’t with her voters (not that it mattered anyway.)

Avoid low utility items like the news for the most part and you’ll see the second-order effects across your life (yes, I know this sounds like a Herbalife™ commercial.)

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On Advice

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philosophy

I think, for the most part,  advice is quite nonsensical.

In generations past, there was a superb advantage to being older – you had accumulated massive amounts of information about the world and your bandwidth of reality was much greater than that of someone younger. There’s a reason that Shamans of age-old were generally the oldest and had aggregated the most experience in the tribe. Nowadays that advantage has steadily dropped (similar to MoviePass stock) to one of my favorite numbers – zero.

Why is this the case? I believe Google has radically eliminated the boon and wisdom of age. Is there a value to age anymore? If I wanted to learn about history and military strategy, why go to grandpa instead of reading tale upon tale of men who were in actually in those battles online? Or even streaming a documentary about these men from Netflix.

So if the benefit of age has gone to zero (actually it’s more of a negative, there is substantial evidence for ageism in Silicon Valley), when and how should we take advice?

The computer scientist within me would say that you would do a depth-first search (DFS) into someone’s personality: assess how much they know about a topic, and only then listen to them about said topic. Let’s say Susan did a PHD and works solely in ornithology; I’ll most likely never listen to her advice about high-frequency trading or what stocks to buy. Some things are better left to practitioners versus the academics, whose ideas are untested in the real world. First principles versus thinking by analogy.

As to how we would take advice, this is much harder. I would never listen to just one person. That’s how we get situations where the youth of a generation feel as if they have to choose their profession between the large list of doctor, lawyer, and engineer. It’s a baffling paradox that people who want the best for you can end up cataclysmically ruining your life in unseen ways.

The French would say (when they’re not constantly drinking espressos/going on holiday):

“Chacun voit midi à sa porte” 

This translates roughly to everyone sees noon at his doorstep.

The idiom is supposedly taken to mean that even those you trust are implicitly looking out for themselves. Your mother who would give up the world for you begs you to be a doctor/engineer (not lawyers because they don’t get paid as much in comparison) not because she hates you, but because she doesn’t want to see you suffer. Unfortunately that ends up the plot to a wide assortment of comedic movies – nobody quite knows what they’re doing at all. We make it up as we go, sauntering through life.

Personally, I had this noon at my doorstep experience when I moved to the UK to start at Warwick, roughly two years ago. Perhaps the individuals I grew up with had my best intentions at heart, but because of living in a bubble, they couldn’t see that there was a whole world out there to see and explore. Building a life versus living in one.

I might feel this way in part because I’m of the mindset that 99% of people we interact with are the same. Same tastes, hobbies, and desires. And the only way to lead a special life – if we believe we are special – is to do something different or unique. Inevitably this requires going against the grain and making some people very angry. I definitely don’t recommend choosing the immigrant path as a starting point for achieving that (yes, this is a joke.)

“You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.”

– James Anthony Froude

 

On What Matters

philosophy

As most people do, I cycle through phases of my daily life where I wonder if what I’m doing actually has real impact.

From Sam Altman’s blog:

“Like most people, I sometimes go through periods of a week or two where I just have no motivation to do anything (I suspect it may have something to do with nutrition).

This sucks and always seems to happen at inconvenient times. I have not figured out what to do about it besides wait for the fog to lift, and to trust that eventually it always does.”

 

Indeed, clearing the “fog” takes both a certain physical and mental prowess.

One of the books I finished recently was called Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage about Ernest Shackleton’s daring voyage to cross the Antarctic continent (ending the Heroic Age.) Without any spoilers – even though it’s a real story – Shackleton leads his men to safety with zero deaths, which is quite a mean feat for someone who lived a century ago and without much technology. Before the journey, Shackleton is highlighted as irreverent and irresponsible by his peers and staff.

Yet, his men after they survive say:

“He was, as one of his men put it, “the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none.”’

People like Shackleton, Lansing states, have a power that is not meant for daily life, but that can only be harnessed in the heat of battle.

For Shackleton that was leading his men with the hope that they would hopefully see their loved ones again when the odds were incredibly against him and his crew.

“But the great leaders of historical record—the Napoleons, the Nelsons, the Alexanders—have rarely fitted any conventional mold, and it is perhaps an injustice to evaluate them in ordinary terms.”

Sometimes that battle is within ourselves as Altman mentioned and we can’t help ourselves to the full extent of our abilities if we lack the fundamentals – eating healthy, not drinking (too much), and exercise. Mentally, journaling and reading can turn the rocky, unsettled waters inside our heads into a still river, calming us in the process.

On this note, a video that a friend and I watched recently was about Ashton Kutcher and from his speech at the 2013 Nickelodeon Teen Awards. You would not on first glance expect truisms from Ashton; to date Kutcher has created Thorn, aiding children that are victims of sexual abuse, and Sound Ventures, a venture capital fund investing in unicorns like Uber and Airbnb. It’s worth hearing him out at the very least.

Marc Andreessen said this about Kutcher when Forbes delved deeper into how he generated $30 million into nearly $250 million:

“If you can routinely return 3x, you’re considered one of the best VCs,” says Marc Andreessen. […]

If you can return 5x, it’s considered to be a home run. I took my math classes: 8x is seriously higher than 5x.”

In the video, Kutcher says that there are three things that he’s learned in his life thus far: they fall in the categories of creating opportunity, being sexy, and building a life rather than just existing in one.

Kutcher’s first job was carrying shingles to the roof with his dad and while that might sound lame, it creates a sense of humbleness for work in general. Like he says, he was always just “lucky to have a job” – personally, I have had the experience of believing that I was definitely too intelligent for some of the companies I was working for. If you have ambition, it might feel demeaning in our heads to be just a developer, business developer, plumber, or cat caretaker.

As MLK said:

Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry.”

The next is a bit more controversial. He elucidates by saying that “being sexy” isn’t necessarily about gracing the cover of Vanity Fair; rather it’s being smart, thoughtful, and generous.

“[Everything else] is just crap people sell to you to make you feel like less.”

This seems like trite advice on first glance – step one, be attractive and step two, don’t be unattractive, right? Still, everyone is curious to some extent. We see the world in our own perspective. To reference George Berkeley, “perception is reality” and we all live in our own realities.

Anyone can be more curious and thus smarter about the world we live in. Indeed, it’s the desire to learn that is scarce: before it used to be that it was impossible to distribute scholarly materials in a fashion similar to the internet. Most of us – even though we would never admit it to ourselves – would take the blue pill from the Matrix.

Everyone would also agree with the last two, acting in a way that is thoughtful and generous pays you back in the years to come perhaps in a selfish manner.In an earlier post, I discussed the effective altruism movement – people didn’t want to donate as effectively as possible, rather they wanted to “feel good” in the moment and give money to beggars on the street.

If you’re generous people remember and they’ll especially remember if you’re thoughtful. It’s the opposite of every networking event where the organizers supposedly promise that you’ll meet the Wozniak to your Jobs. Take, Take, Take. Whereas giving and not feeling entitled to anything results in what we actually need from others in the years to come (if anything at all).

His last point, based off the famous Steve Jobs commencement speech, is that we should seek to build a life instead of just living one. This is perhaps the one that causes most of the depression we see rampant in society today.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

I remember in high school, I was told from one of my teachers that his friends would come back home from work and watch TV. When they would meet they would complain that they weren’t achieving their dreams as a singer, artist, etc. That made sad enough to the point that I left the room mid-lecture.

The current western school system of wake up, school, homework, then sleep was invented in the height of the Prussian empire to produce a docile populace. That already speaks volumes about contemporary Western culture and behavior. Everyone knows that the education system is broken – only a monumental change will fix the issue. However, a minor but exponential difference could be seen if teachers told students even the idea that the world is theirs to make, not just to live in. See a mistake in the world? Then change it. We lose track of the future through competition with our peers in a mimetic way unfortunately.

Above all, the Kutcher video showed me once more that some people contain a greater amount of dimensionality than we give them credit for. Shackleton could have been shackled (no pun intended) to the whims of his peers and not left for the Antarctic. His and even our fog clears away when we stick true to our north star and not let the madness of crowds affect us: after all, it’s just crap anyway.


Read next: On Reading

Reverse Prophecies Introduction

reading

I’ve been reading for years now – I fell in love as a child. Once home from school (not that I was there often), I’d want to read until sleep would break the book’s hold on me. And then I’d start the routine anew the next day.

Yet, after years of reading and writing, I’ve decided to embark on my own journey of adding a piece to the canon by crafting my own book centered around the intersection of philosophy and the world of business – applied philosophy in my view.

To reiterate, I have no professional background in either philosophy or business, but I feel this gives those like me insights from an outsider. I again doubt anything like this has been written: as the famous passage from The Lord of the Rings narrates:

Still round the corner there may wait

A new road or a secret gate,

And though we pass them by today,

Tomorrow we may come this way

And take the hidden paths that run

Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

Some paths are worth deciphering and this is one of them.

This is the introduction – if there’s any direction you’d suggest for me to take, I am always open for debate.


 

Reverse Prophecies

I’ve often harbored the thought that Schrödinger would love the world we inhabit today. We simultaneously believe that the singularity will wipe out our jobs tomorrow while lamenting about the lack of visible progress in the world. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece that is Zarathustra, delivers:

“Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again; eternally runs the year of being. Everything breaks, everything is joined anew; eternally the same House of Being is built.

Everything parts, everything greets every other thing again; eternally the ring of being remains faithful to itself. In every Now, being begins; round every Here rolls the sphere There. The center is everywhere. Bent is the path of eternity.”

Freud remarked that Nietzsche released “the words for much that remains mute in me” – the trademark of one who has definitively earned his place in the Western Canon. There’s a distinct recursive aspect to Nietzsche and the House of Being. What has happened before will necessarily happen again: we momentarily leave only to greet each other once more. That’s not to say this happens in our lifetimes – our actions or lack thereof will have stark consequences for the future in fields like energy consumption, immigration dynamics, and even space-travel. In that sense, it does not seem strange to think that many of our answers to our newly birthed questions can be found in the past.

This question is perhaps most poignant within the technology sector today. One of the lions in the venture capital animal kingdom, Andreessen Horowitz operates with the mindset that software is eating the world. Indeed it is, but the technology companies that dominate our world today control the software that they make. These quasi-monopolies that are possessed with an engorged appetite for the best products, people, and processes. have grown to dominate the world. Yet, they were all based off the indomitable philosophies of their founders. This is not just the case in the technology industry of course. One may wonder whether we have changed from the Gilded age era of the late 19th Century – we, as consumers, still cater to the whims of these titans whether by buying their goods nonchalantly or by justifying the abuse they heap on their employees for the sake of greatness. Instead of Rockefeller, Carnegie, or J.P. Morgan we call them Musk, Bezos, or Thiel.

The Pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, had a line passed down the ages that character is destiny. A nation’s character is upheld, day after day, from its leaders who carry their mantle to future generations. In today’s world, our leaders are more vividly seen from our CEO’s and business titans – the sweeping changes created today at companies like SpaceX to Google’s Calico will leave behind a glow that lights up the night sky of history. Nietzsche would have a lot to say about the populist movements occurring now in the western world and those a century ago – bent is the path of eternity. These companies had the blood, sweat, and tears of their founders who believed that frayed relationships and late nights were worth eternal business success.

Founder-led companies imbue their businesses with their chosen philosophy and this is the élan vital that attracts the cream of the crop. This is not to say that every change will be a remarkable boon to everyone: analysis acquired in post-Industrial Revolution England makes it crystal clear that there can be a substantial time lag between the advent of technological progress and its benefits filtered to the majority. However,  whether we approve or try to fight it, companies and the founders who made them will morph the world perhaps into one of their choosing. As Justine Musk would say when asked about her ex-husband, Elon Musk:

“It’s Elon’s world, and the rest of us live in it.”

But, another man – a pioneer of the industry antithetical to Musk – was David Rockefeller Sr. who earns a gleaming title in history as a polarizing figure in business, which is putting in mildly. The Standard Oil octopus engulfed the world and the entirety of the United States for decades and even now has resulted in the Seven Sisters – the oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell. It’s from having a glimpse of his background and personality that I ask if can we draw parallels between the mindset of the man and that of Hegel with his Hegelian dialectics?

Although they are more than a century apart, did Musk and Rockefeller garner inspiration from any of the great minds of the Western Canon before them for the philosophies of their own corporations? These are the types of questions that will be given a deeper look. Can we get a glimpse of what the future of business will resemble by comprehending the past? Like any worthy philosophical inquiry, there is no beginning nor is there an end. Every question that parts us, is greeted again in another form as Nietzsche would remark. This is my stab at greeting those age-old questions in my contemporary way, sui generis.

 

On Charity

charity

This past week I was fortunate to attend the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival hosted in Dolby Laboratories. At the event they unveiled The Rescue List, a documentary about the nauseating trend of human trafficking in Lake Volta, Ghana. For those like me who were unaware, parents in devastating poverty will send their kids, some of whom are toddlers, to work with fisherman in exchange for an infinitesimal amount of Ghanaian Cedi. The stark reality arrives when the kids are indefinitely taken: they’re slaves toiling without pay. The directors, after years of researching and garnering trust within the lakeside communities, managed to illustrate the story of two boys – Peter and Edem – as they adjust to “reality” in a rehabilitation center after their forced captivity. While I don’t want to reveal too much, I can say that the story has its abrupt twists and turns: it doesn’t end by freely handing out the fuzzy “warm glow” feeling like candy for the audience as is often the norm.

Charity in a way hovers in the category of topics to shy away from at the dinner table. Conventional wisdom would say that people are binary when it comes to charitable practices: they either enjoy aiding people and feeling that sudden rush of dopamine or they follow the path of Melville’s Bartleby and “prefer not to.” But the issue is much more complicated when given more than just a passing glance.

Within the set of those who want to help, there are people who believe the best way to give back is utilitarian: the palliative “cure” of helping everyone suffering from poverty. Examples of this approach include handing spare change (if you still carry cash in this day and age) to the homeless man and his pet bunny, Moses, on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Whether the generosity arose from wanting to morally grandstand your close friends, believing you were making a difference, or the overwhelming presence of the bunnies’ cuteness, it was still an entirely selfless act, no? On the other hand, one could argue that the incentive for helping was we physically feel positive when we aid others: our bodies are fed endorphins mimicking a mild morphine sensation – known as the “helper’s high” by psychologists.1

In the vein of the 17th century French author, Francois de La Rochefoucauld:

“We should often blush at our noblest deeds if the world were to see all their underlying motives.”

Did the donation quantifiably help the man? Maybe so, but in most cases, the sad truth is that it did not – the act of giving was more for us than those who were in desperate need for the resources. If anything one could argue that because providing palliative care only treats the sores of the wound and not the wound itself, helping the homeless man has let the underlying problem grow larger. Evidence of this lies in our actions: we diversify our charitable donations to keep feeling great and almost never consider giving anonymously. Diversifying is a strong strategy when we seek to bullet-proof our downside, a given in capricious markets like those of commodities or equities. However, fractioning a donation by a few orders of magnitude instead of donating in a lumped sum creates a negative sum situation whereby charities must live a hair’s length away from bankruptcy. From Hope Consulting, roughly 97 percent of donors don’t compare their ideal nonprofit to others, suggesting they must have an organization already in their minds and blindly donate. 2

Again if we did care and felt so much for others altruistically then would we not consider donating anonymously and solely seek to make the world positive sum? Less than a percent of donations to public charities are anonymous and even those who say they seek refuge in the shadows probably delve into details of the orphanages they built within their social circles. 3 Empirically, the data suggests that we like the glamour and fame from demonstrating we control resources in spades to change the world for the better.

This is why I’ve been quite enamored with the rising tide of effective altruism: harnessing evidence and reason to locate where we can do the most good.

This idea is rooted in the philosophy of Peter Singer who made many uncomfortable by suggesting that as we have a moral duty to save someone dying in front of our eyes, we have that same obligation to help someone across the world. If we don’t, Singer remarks in his book, it is the same moral hazard as letting someone die in our vicinity whom we could have saved. Coming from the hedge fund scene, I can see that this framework could lead to a swath of improvement across the charitable genre. Rather than lying in ignorance about our donations, we can see where our money goes and the return on our donations. From the Effective Altruism website, the scale of a cause can be defined by whether it is:

  • Great in scale (it affects many people’s lives, by a great amount)
  • Highly neglected (few other people are working on addressing the problem)
  • Highly solvable (additional resources will do a great deal to address it)

Based off this mental model, there are now funds that seek to achieve the highest return on one’s donation (ROD) – the measuring stick is the extent to which our money is put to good use. I believe that the sector of social impact funds and this wave of effective altruism is ripe for a cambrian explosion. Further proof is witnessed with the arrival of notable venture capitalists entering the space: Vinod Khosla and his Khosla Impact fund serves to “assist great entrepreneurs developing products and services for the three billion people in the bottom half of the world’s economic pyramid.”

One of my theses for the future is that we can leverage technology in the form of cheaper electronics coupled with software to thrust people out of inhumane conditions in the rest of the world. Rather than giving in to our hedonism and seeking to achieve a tiny thrill every time we donate, effective altruism could be the harbinger for making a difference, concretized in atoms, for the lagging parts of the world.

(Thanks to Alex Young for his invariant help in making sure my thoughts aren’t too far off the beaten path.)

Index

[1] Helper’s High

[2] Hope Consulting

 

Slice of Insight: The Elephant in the Brain

book review

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elephantinthebrain.com

(This isn’t a paid ad; I simply enjoyed the book so much that I wanted to share it.)


I’ve been fascinated by ex-Palantir employee Kevin Simler for sometime now. I believe I stumbled upon his blog, Melting Asphalt, at some period in high school: I was searching for a use with my energy – inexhaustible it appeared at the time. Immediately I was hooked after I read his piece, Stories and Theories, aimed at how both allow us to partition the world in vastly different ways. So it’s no surprise that when The Elephant in the Brain hit shelves, I was prepared to dive in headfirst.

An elephant in the room is an idiom for how there can be an item noteworthy between a group of people let’s say, but it won’t be discussed (i.e. nobody mentioning your uncle’s recent mishaps with alcohol). Specifically, the book addresses how there are some aspects of our personality and decision-making that are indecipherable to us, ergo elephant in the brain. But the book itself analyses a multitude of points that seem quite distinct, but in reality all come together at the end.

One of my favorite parts of the book was when Simler and Hanson highlight the game theory of coastal redwood trees. Essentially, Redwood trees individually spend their resources trying to become as tall as capillary action will let them – around 400 feet for those curious. It’s the great filter for redwood trees. But why aim to be the tallest? Forests are the definition of a competitive environment and even then, sunlight is cardinally scarce in Mother Nature’s resource cornucopia. Therefore:

“[The] redwood is locked in an evolutionary arms race—or in this case, a “height race”—with itself. It grows tall because other redwoods are tall, and if it doesn’t throw most of its effort into growing upward as fast as possible, it will literally wither and die in the shadows of its rivals.”

Humans were able to evolve and abound over other species in large part because we could form coalitions, attracting allies to one’s side, and thus plan for the future. The incentive to do this is because we can aspire to individually earn a larger piece of the pie (or pai); this is the underpinnings for anthropolitics and where it becomes truly complex.Without this aspect, we should expect that the world mimics dog-eat-dog and that the rate of advancement should come to a standstill (assuming it ever began in the first place). The magnificent masterpieces and innovations from the Library of Alexandria in antiquity or more recently, the transistors in your computer’s memory chip could have only been accomplished with intraspecies collaboration. Individually we would have to scrounge for the scarcest of bare necessities, but together we can create reusable rockets and send astronauts to the moon.

Before I give away too much from this fantastic work, I find myself repeatedly thinking of Simler and Hanson’s notion that we seek to fool ourselves and distort signals into noise. The fundamental irony is that we commit sensory overload in order to soak in information from our surroundings but once we have it, our brains erase and etch over it in our memories. To see the prevalence of this idea, one only needs to look at the amount of movies based on the trope of an disloyal memory: Inception, Blade Runner 2049, and the Matrix have this interlaced with their core plots.2 It’s almost as if we have to wrestle the truth from memory’s clenched fingers. Plato said in the Theaetetus that our memories are like wax tablets: they last until the imprinted stamp on the wax wears away. Indeed, the wax wears off rapidly and the writings are translated into what we prefer rather than the truth.3

These ideas are only scratching the surface of what’s inside the book, make sure to check it out if you’re purportedly interested in what could only be described as their sui generis work.

The Elephant in the Brain is available on Amazon.

Index

[1] More on anthropolitics.

[2] Blade Runner 2049 is better than the original IMO (don’t shoot please.)

[3] Theory of Knowledge.

On Reading

reading

I often get asked questions along the variant of “how do I spend more time reading.” I quickly become trapped in a hypocritical stance similar to the apocryphal tale of Mozart.

One man came to Mozart and asked him how to write a symphony. Mozart replied, “You are too young to write a symphony.” The man said, “You were writing symphonies when you were 10 years of age, and I am 21.” Mozart said, “Yes, but I didn’t run around asking people how to do it.” 1

Indeed, I think some people are wired a certain way because of nature or nurture. I’ve always loved to read so I could not imagine not giving it the time it requires. Yet this question should still be discussed because I believe most people are reading erroneously or are unaware that it is also a skill that needs to be honed over time.

As I’ve explored this question, I’ve realized that those people are specifically asking on the gradations to process and compartmentalize information better. If we think of learning as downloading an update to our software, the brain, then they’re really asking how they increase the bandwidth or filter the quality of data they absorb from their environment. I realized this early enough as a curious kid that I was doing it wrong somehow. Your school probably didn’t teach anything about the metaphysicality of learning: how can we learn better and can we make this algorithm more efficient.

One of the books I thoroughly enjoyed while understanding how I should address the technicalities of reading was How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler. My close friends have heard me gush incessantly about this book for a reason – many of us spend our lives reading whether it’s Instagram captions (hopefully mine) or in-depth technical papers on ornithology (I hope not, they’re mostly dull). But how rigorously do we improve our reading abilities? Is there even a way to track improvement? Our mind is a muscle and thus we must repeatedly push ourselves to exhaustion and then a bit more after that to absorb ever-increasing amounts of information. Reading is analogous. To read more complex works, for instance, like the Path to Power series examining Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro – this series has my highest praise – takes the ordeal of exercising our minds beforehand.

Adler provides various ways of examining a written work and determining whether it addresses the questions we’re looking for. One shouldn’t read a graphic novel in the same fashion as they read a physics textbook, but that’s an incredibly common occurrence still. I recently watched the film Cloud Atlas and there’s a line of how: “A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.” It is easy to get lost in the romance of the books we read, but we only have so much time available in our lives for reading. I would prefer to schedule my hours for books that have invariant value – possibly those with a Lindy effect as Taleb would say.2

Further, I think people are self-conscious of the fact that they stopped reading sometime in early high school in order to carve out a chunk of their time for academic drudgery. For a schedule to read, I thought Shane Parrish from Farnam Street put it brilliantly: just 25 pages a day can result in nearly 10,000 pages a year.

In his words: “Well, The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy’s two masterpieces come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbons is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That’s 10,472 pages. That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, I’ve knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!”

He then finishes with: “this is how the great works gets read. Day by day. 25 pages at a time. No excuses.” 3

The main ideas are then to tailor our reading styles and start the habit of purposefully reading more. This is true whether you want to appear well-read to your friends or simply quench the curiosity you have. As Naval Ravikant said: “the tools for learning are abundant. It’s the desire to learn that’s scarce.” 4

Index

[1] 25iq and Charlie Munger

[2] Don’t eat their cheesecake

[3] Farnam Street’s 25 pages a day

[4] Naval

The Age of Crypto Monopolies

crypto

standardOil.jpg

Standard Oil octopus engulfing the United States.

Renown as the co-founder of Paypal and the first investor in Facebook, Peter Thiel has enthralled the investing world with his insights on durable businesses. In his book, Zero to OneThiel describes our world as dynamic and in such a world, creative monopolies are a positive-sum game: they add entirely new avenues of business and thus create value instead of acting as rent-seekers. Likewise, the history of American industry is a recursion of various monopolies from the days of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in the late 19th century to Intel’s hold on manufacturing semiconductors in the 1960s and to Microsoft’s dominance on the operating systems market the 1990s. The constant between these corporations is that their dominance often frayed with the entrance of new monopolies: these entrants did not compete head-on, but rather by sidestepping the current incumbent at the time.

But can we apply Thiel’s insights to the cryptocurrency ecosystem at the moment? I believe so because we’re swiftly seeing the preeminence of certain coins like Ethereum replacing the paradigm of aggregation theory and controlling the cryptocurrency sector. For the “uninitiated,” imagine Ethereum as a platform for smart contracts and decentralized applications to build off of — an analogy would be what Linda Xie mentions as Apple’s App store and all the apps under its umbrella¹. While Apple acts as a forceful intermediary in this sense, there is no barrier to entry to creating an Ethereum decentralized application (dapp) or harnessing its smart contract capabilities. There are substantial reasons why Ethereum’s market share is vastly expanding: the Ethereum Enterprise alliance houses the most premier names in business including J.P. Morgan, Intel, and Deloitte². And developers find Ethereum as the key platform for the foundation of their decentralized applications because of Solidity — Ethereum’s programming language — which is a close cousin of Javascript and C.

These features of Ethereum have led to a massive rise in the number of ERC-20 tokens, specifically standards that tokens have to meet to exist on the Ethereum network — in the ecosystem. These can then be transported and contained with Ethereum public addresses and wallets like Parity or MyEtherWallet. Some of the largest coins by market cap fall in this category, including Omisego (OMG), Augur (REP), and Golem (GNT)³. As the network effect of Ethereum continues to grow and as more developers start their journey in blockchain by programming with Solidity, it could lead to Ethereum acquiring significant market share across the spectrum. At the time of writing, Ethereum’s dominance is roughly 13 percent of the total cryptocurrency market cap; yet, if past technological advancements can serve as a signal, then we will definitely witness a few coins taking control over the entire market. Ethereum stands to be the creative monopolist in this case: this is not necessarily a negative outcome.

Thiel highlights four characteristics that successful monopolies have an amalgamation of: proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, and branding⁴. Ethereum fulfills all of these by a wide margin because it started off by capturing the niche for building decentralized applications in the same vein as Microsoft swallowed the market share for operating systems.Fundamentally, a virtuous cycle is created whereby a better platform attracts higher-quality engineers and therefore, grander apps are released to the public, who are then drawn to Ethereum ad infinitum.

But I believe that this might be a wonderful change for the sector. Ethereum’s consolidation would create certain standards that are followed and an ease-of-use for consumers — MyEtherWallet has become the favorite wallet of many. However, the potential second-order effects are left to the imagination.There was no possible way one could predict that driving more would lead to the exponential development of big box stores like Walmart. Maybe Ethereum’s monopoly would enable developers to work on applying blockchain technology globally; currently, the ecosystem is divided on a myriad of issues, such as the best way to validate blocks (i.e. proof-of-work or proof-of-stake). Certainly as time passes and blockchain becomes an established technology, Ethereum might lose its status, but all the core conditions for a monopoly are present when generally even one suffices for a business.

While the word “monopoly” might leave a horrid taste in the mouths of government officials and average consumers, they indeed shape our economies in a variety of industriesFrom an investor’s standpoint, it makes sense to focus allocate most of one’s capital on the most durable business. One would survive — and probably succeed beyond their wildest dreams — in this market by investing in coins that have the potential to escape competition and become true dynamic monopolies. Indeed, Thiel exclaims: “Competition is for losers,” but as of today, it seems Ethereum has eviscerated its competition⁵.

Index

[1] Linda Xie’s story on Medium concerning Ethereum and ERC-20s: https://blog.coinbase.com/a-beginners-guide-to-ethereum-tokens-fbd5611fe30b

[2] Members of the Ethereum Enterprise Alliance: https://entethalliance.org/members/

[3] Data pulled from Coinmarketcap.

[4] From Chapter 5, “Last Mover Advantage” of Peter Thiel’s Zero to One. Fantastic book!

[5] From Zero to One.

The Synthesis of Raiden and Ethereum

crypto

As put forth countless times before I, there are indeed an untold number of abysmal projects and cash-grabs currently in the cryptocurrency sector (see: Are ICOs a Scam). These serve the purpose of lining the investors’ and team’s pockets. However, Raiden does not fit this mold, rather the Raiden Network shapes one of its own: it has the potential to become one of the most ambitious projects in the next decade as blockchain scaling becomes a tenuous issue.

Currently the amount of transactions on the Ethereum network has been increasing exponentially. This is a strong harbinger for the crypto community as people and institutions view the Ethereum network as the best way to conduct their transactions. But as was demonstrated with the advent of CryptoKitties, a more pressing issue is that the network does not have sufficient throughput to enable near-immediate and cheap transactions at scale: the gas for a kitty costs around $2. So how does Raiden help alleviate this issue?

If they succeed, Raiden could provide up to a million transactions per second on the Ethereum network, all the while boasting incredibly modest fees. In a nutshell, Raiden aims to discover the fastest and shortest way to conduct transactions without relying on the blockchain, called off-chain for this reason, except for creating the chain and closing the payment channel. If William wants to send a transfer to Sally, he simply opens a payment channel with a smart contract, secures it with a deposit of his tokens held in escrow — keeping the transfers trustworthy — and then Sally can close the smart contract when she is satisfied. The tokens are then removed from escrow and sent to Sally.

In an applied sense, Raiden could be vital to the rise of micropayments on the Ethereum network as on-chain transaction costs are almost invariant with the amount sent. Therefore, microtransactions would be better accomplished over Raiden’s network instead of paying large fees consistently. Micro Raiden — uRaiden — was crafted for this purpose. Internet technologies like Web APIs and data processing are all priced as a function of use unlike the current Ethereum network. Yet, Micro Raiden allows for an elastic pricing model so different types of customers can pay for exactly what they need. An exciting feature is the immediate confirmation of payment one receives from Raiden’s off-chain quality: the wait for confirmations and furiously checking to see if the transaction has succeeded is a great friction for widespread adoption.

Our world is tending toward a future where micropayments will be ubiquitous: developments within the internet of things (IoT) sector are making headway and our devices will harness micropayments when they interact with one another. One can easily picture a self-driving car topping up its battery by purchasing kilowatts of electricity on Ethereum’s blockchain; the Raiden network could make this a reality sooner than we think.Consensys’ Grid Plus is aiming to utilize Raiden to do just that by connecting consumers who want to buy and sell solar power with near-zero fees.

If 2018 is remotely similar to 2017, the desire and usage of cryptocurrency is only the beginning. Indeed, at the current rate of adoption, Ethereum desperately requires a scaling solution. Raiden vis-à-vis their past development of uRaiden and their roadmap, stands at the precipice of kick-starting Ethereum’s prowess into the next decade.