Skip the small talk (part one)

I’ve been running an experiment where I ask people at least one of the following questions to understand their thinking and personality better. I feel like a lot of time is wasted on small talk and discussing work, so I encourage you to skip all of that and see what interesting conversations come out of these questions!

  • If you were going to be frozen tomorrow for a one-way 1000-year interstellar voyage, what would you most want to communicate (and to whom) before you leave?
  • What do you think you’re most likely to regret on your deathbed?
  • What do you miss most about your past that could be recreated today?
  • What’s the most important thing to remember daily that you haven’t been able to?
  • What help could you most use that you haven’t asked for?
  • What is your one piece of advice to everyone here?
  • What was the last thing you fell in love with?
  • When was the last time you felt unbounded optimism?
  • Who was the last person you felt inspired by?
  • What simple thing still blows your mind?
  • What sparked your curiosity in whatever you’re most curious about now?
  • What’s the most useful concept you have that doesn’t have a name?
  • What’s something you believe but can’t defend?
  • What taste do you have that most people don’t have, where does it come from, and how has it helped you?
  • What is your most radical belief?
  • Do you think it’s more important to follow the “written” rules or the “unwritten” rules? What is one unwritten rule that you’ve learned?
  • What is the most significant thing you’ve changed your mind on in the last year? Why did you change your mind about it?
  • Which fictional character would be the most boring to meet in real life?
  • What’s the closest thing to real magic?
  • If you could know the absolute and total truth to one question, what question would you ask?
  • Which question can you ask to find out the most about a person?
  • What do you want your epitaph to be?
  • There are two types of people in this world. What are the two types?
  • What is something you are certain you’ll never experience?
  • Who is/was your most interesting friend?
  • What small gesture from a stranger made a big impact on you?
  • If you had a clock that would countdown to any one event of your choosing, what event would you want it to count down?
  • What are three of the most significant numbers in your life?
  • Which of your personality traits has been the most useful?
  • Imagine you have a closet full of robots at the ready. Which of your various obligations would you assign to a robot? Which tasks and activities would you keep to yourself, because you enjoy them too much to delegate them to even a robot who is better than you?
  • What is the best measurement of how an idea is absorbed into culture?
  • Do you think you’re undervalued as a person? If so, why?
  • Why are some people so addictive?
  • What color best describes your personality?

Part two will be up when I come up with new questions!


Links – 001

Organizational complexity is the best predictor of bugs – Microsoft Research studied MS Vista code, and found that more people, more departments, and high turnover are major contributors to bugs. This paper extends the original study and backs up the findings on organizational complexity.

Dazzle camouflage was used by British warships to obfuscate a ship’s speed, range, and heading when targeted.

Raising children with voice assistants.

Giovanni De Maria.

Merck completely bypassed animal testing for their first HIV protease inhibitor and tested directly on a human. From David France’s How to Survive a Plague:

“With no animal data, how do you know this one’s good?” he asked.

After a period of evasiveness, Huff made an admission. “There was a ‘big chimp’ experiment.”

Reider understood immediately what this meant: one of Merck’s scientists––a “big chimp”––had taken the pill himself or herself. What went on behind Merck’s closed doors would remain a secret. The results were good, that was the important thing. The “chimp” showed no toxic aftereffect, and large quantities of Crixivan made it from the stomach into the bloodstream. “It’s very bioavailable,” Huff reported.

Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold more than 70,000 ‘kit houses’ by mail. Most can be found in Illinois, though there are a few hundred still left in DC 🙂

Samo Burja argues that prestige matters more than money (ie, awards matter more than prize money), and behavior science agrees with him.

“I think that in studying economic growth, we (and especially we in the Silicon Valley) focus way too much on gadgets, and too little on the simple fact of human knowledge of how to do things.” What Free Solo can teach us about economic growth.

Cryptonetworks syllabus by Dani Grant at USV.

Telomeres and aging, cancer, and death. “Yet, each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell can no longer divide; it becomes inactive or “senescent” or it dies. This shortening process is associated with aging, cancer, and a higher risk of death.”

I hate wasting food. This guy does, too.

Transport Systems and City Organization. Cesare Marchetti, the Italian physicist who wrote this report, has been one of my favorite finds recently. Here he is on green mobility.

Why are the prices so damn high? Alex Tabarrok and Eric Helland examine and explain the Baumol effect.

Send interesting links my way!

What’s today’s version of the homebrew club/crypto-counterculture?

Credit to James for the question. Updated 24 May 2019 to include bio-hacking. Updated 10 June 2019 to add the last sentence to #4. 

Which group of close-knit people are working on the weird ideas and technology that everyone else is ignoring? Here are a few ideas today that come to mind:

  1. 3D printing. This was all the rage a few years ago, as is with any trend that comes and goes. The majority may have given up or lost interest in 3D printing because they only saw the short-term possibility of printing with plastic, and were not patient enough for the long-game where 3D printing would touch metals, real-estate construction, and medicine. There are companies already working on 3D printing in each of those fields. (See Desktop Metal)
  2. Private cities. The larger goal of private cities is generating economic activity in a place that needs it, and improving processes that local governments have ignored or failed to adopt in a technology-driven, changing world. Building a city is really difficult and expensive, which is probably why not many people are trying to build them. (See the Center for Innovative Governance Research)
  3. BCIs for prosthetics. When a lot of people hear BCIs, they think of controlling things with their mind. While that’s true to some extent, I’m more interested in how much better prosthetics are going to get because of BCIs. By understanding how the electrical signals between the brain and the muscle work, a BCI company can start building and selling the technology that makes for more functional limbs and improves the lives of millions of people. (See CTRL-Labs)
  4. True bio-hacking. Progress in medical care and medical devices for patients will change with the abundance of programmers (see hacking insulin pumps and CPAP machines). Med-tech and pharma companies that are too slow for what patients and consumers need will get buried by programmers who are motivated enough to build and hack existing hardware in order to survive. This will branch out to experimentation with actual human bodies to delay mortality and treat death as an enemy. (I don’t believe that humans will become immortal, but I’m still more than happy to befriend you if you do 🙂 )

I’m hoping for a revival of labs à la Alfred Lee Loomis and the revival of gentlemen scientists. I’d love to hear your answers to this question, and if you’re working on any of the above, please reach out!

Quotes from The Collected Schizophrenias

I really enjoyed reading Esmé Wang‘s The Collected Schizophrenias. It’s a short book, only about 200 pages, and you could probably finish it in a day (it took me three because I was a little busier than usual). I recommend you read this book. Here are my 11 favorite snippets.

Humans are the arbiters of which diagnoses are given to other humans––who are, in most cases, suffering, and at the mercy of doctors whose diagnostic decisions hold great power. Giving someone a diagnosis of schizophrenia will impact how they see themselves. It will change how the interact with friends and family, The diagnosis will affect how they are seen by the medical community, the legal system, the Transportation Security Administration, and so on.

Even now, she doesn’t consider herself an X on the family tree, preferring to keep herself a mild circle, absolved on the page despite her own history of suicidal ideation, panic, and hiding in closets.

The story of schizophrenia is one with a protagonist, “the schizophrenic,” who is first a fine and good vessel with fine and good things inside of it, and then becomes misshapen through the ravages of psychosis; the vessel becomes prone to being filled with nasty things. Finally, the wicked thoughts and behaviors that may ensue become inseparable from the person, who is now unrecognizable from what they once were.

Humans might all be ciphers to one another, but people with mental illness are particularly opaque because of their broken brains. We cannot be trusted about anything, including our own experiences.

Sometimes, my mind does fracture, leaving me frightened of poison in my tea or corpses in the parking lot. But then it reassembles, and I am once again a recognizable self.

In [Elyn R. Sak’s study about the nature of high-functioning schizophrenia], employment remains the primary marker of someone who is high-functioning, as having a job is the most reliable sign that you can pass in the world as normal. Most critically, a capitalist society values productivity in its citizens above all else, and those with mental illness are much less likely to be productive in ways considered valuable by adding to the cycle of production and profit.

Because I am capable of achievement, I find myself uncomfortable around those who are visibly psychotic and audibly disorganized.

If the conversation winds its way to my diagnosis, I emphasize my normalcy. See my ordinary, even superlative appearance! Witness the fact that I am articulate. Rewind our interaction and see if you can spot cracks in the facade. See if you can, in sifting through your memory, find hints of insanity to make sense of what I’ve said about who I am. After all, what kind of lunatic has a fashionable pixie cut, wears red lipstick, dresses in pencil skirts and tucked-in blouses? What sort of psychotic wears Loeffler Randall heels without tottering?

In the language of cancer, people describe a thing that “invades” them so that they can “battle” the cancer. No one ever says that a person is a cancer, or that they have become cancer, but they do say that a person is manic-depressive or schizophrenic, once those illnesses have taken hold.

…institutions of higher education fear liability, because no wants to sued over a student’s suicide, or held responsible for a mass shooting. According to many who live and work at them, colleges and universities can’t realistically be expected to give students with severe mental illness the treatment they need.

We are, in the end, linked by desperation based in suffering, and based on a system of conventional medicine that not only has no method of alleviating that suffering, but also accuses us of psychosomatic pathology.

Death of the polymath

A few months ago, I got a grant from Tyler Cowen at Emergent Ventures to go to San Francisco and find a mentor (side note: please consider applying!). I finally got the chance to go in early February and had a fantastic time, but that’s not the point of this post.

I talked to a couple of different people about something that has been at the back of my mind for a while: is it harder to become a polymath today than it was 100+ years ago?

After discussing this with a few people, I came to the conclusion that even though the population of the earth has increased almost five-fold since the beginning of the 20th century, the world is still not producing enough polymaths. There are already brilliant people working on great projects and goals, but they generally stop to work in one area and stick with it for the rest of their lives when they could be applying the same level of ambition and intellect in different areas. So, why aren’t more people doing big things in multiple fields?

I think the first reason is obvious: these people are hard to find. You can’t make any average individual a polymath. Polymaths have really deep interests in subjects that some people might find very complex. Luck has a huge role in determining what characteristics people have or obtain, and it’s rare to have a combination of inherent curiosity mixed with a drive for problem solving across different areas.

Complexity is an issue that I think a lot of people overlook. Science and math has become much more niche than it was a few hundred years ago. There’s just too much information one needs to know about any given area, which slowly increases every year with small, incremental discoveries. There have been breakthroughs in history that completely alter the established belief, and it can be complex even trying to adopt new discoveries. Stubborn attachments to established beliefs can make learning and progressing too difficult because a student might be studying something completely wrong, which impacts at least one generation.

One can argue that it’s easier than ever to find the information because of the internet, but it’s really hard to filter through that information. Search has turned into a battleground for SEO, where the best “growth hackers” win. Information isn’t prioritized, so it can take just as long to find good sources of information on a topic as it is to study the material. Maybe this is a feature and not a bug, helping teach an individual to create a bullshit detector and understand what qualifies as good information and what qualifies as bad information (have you seen the amount of terrible/fake statistics out there?)

As bad as it sounds, the biggest reason is probably because the opportunity cost is too high. At the end of the day, we’re talking about people (some of whom have families) that have to pay the bills and buy food every month. If potential polymaths can’t switch professions and pursue what they love or find funding for the research they actually want to do, they’ll pursue small side projects that may or may not pay off. Money is an anchor just as much as it is an incentive.

I’m not exactly sure why I started thinking about this topic in particular. Perhaps it was because I read this article on the diminishing returns of science. It could have also been because I was watching a cartoon series on Islamic scholars, many of whom were polymaths.

It’s hard to define what a polymath actually is. Is it someone who produces X amount of research in several fields? Do they really have to do something big in multiple fields to be considered a polymath? Can it be a generalist who just knows a lot of things and specializes in one field, yet appears to be a polymath by others? Do polymaths even have to be well-known in the first place to be considered polymaths?

How the Model T drove hats out of fashion

Last week, I came across this tweet from an account I follow on Twitter.

Take a closer look at the picture.

Every single person in this picture, man or woman, was wearing a hat. There isn’t a single person in that picture that isn’t wearing a hat. People even wore broad-rimmed and Panama hats to the beach (unless they were swimming).

Of course, createstreets was pointing out the large sidewalks and tiny roads in the picture, reminding the audience that this was at a time when everybody was walking or riding a horse, and very few people drove cars.

I’m not really sure how my train of thought ended up where it did, but I quickly asked this question: did hats fall out of fashion because of cars?

I ended up getting into a conversation with Andrew, who previously worked in the fashion world, about this particular subject, and after a little bit of research, here’s what I found:

Everyone wore hats, and I mean everyone. Men, women, kids. Hats were generally worn in the streets, but not indoors. They protected people from the sun and rain, and were much easier to carry compared to umbrellas or parasols, which had existed for almost two thousand years by the beginning of the 20th century. While umbrellas had evolved to become very lightweight, they were still too large to carry around, which was a hassle when the most common form of transportation was walking. Pocket umbrellas weren’t even invented until the late 1920s, and many stores had already offered umbrellas for rent when customers were caught in a downpour.

Hats had already been worn for thousands of years by the time the Model T was introduced, but the styles and fashion changed over the years. Different hats signaled different statuses and wealth, and everyone wore them from the Chinese to the Arabs, the French to the Nigerians, and many more. So, how did the Model T suddenly wipe them out of everyday fashion?

Henry Ford first introduced the Model T in 1908, and began selling the cars in 1909. The original Model T contained a foldable vinyl roof that was designed based on horse-driven carriages. In its first year, the Ford Motor Company (FMC) only sold about 10,000 Model Ts*, and compared to the population of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century (~72 million), it was a very small and insignificant number. Ford needed to prove that producing cars for the masses was possible and, more importantly, profitable. How were he and the FMC ever going to produce enough cars for millions of people?

That answer came in the form of the assembly line. Ford was approached by one of the company’s production managers, William Klann, with an idea that could potentially speed up vehicle production and drive down costs. Taking inspiration from a disassembly line in a Chicago butcher’s shop, where animals were put on a conveyer belt and butchers were each assigned to cut a specific part, Klann proposed a similar approach in reverse to assemble vehicles. By assigning each worker a specific part to assemble on every car that came through the line, jobs became more specialized and increased efficiency, speeding up the development process and reducing the costs it took to train employees.

The assembly line worked. By 1916, the Model T cost $360, down from its original price of $825, and the company was producing over half a million cars annually. The FMC proved to the rest of the world that it was possible to mass-produce cars. The biggest impact on production was that the assembly line reduced cost per unit (CPU), and this not only guaranteed the company profits as the price of the vehicle went down, but the average FMC worker could afford to buy a car with a modest salary of $5 per day. This proved to be a very effective marketing strategy for Ford, and the automobile itch spread like wildfire. Not only were consumers lining up to buy the cars, but other car companies were copying the assembly line. The FMC had already owned half the American market, but by the 1920s, over 27 million Ford cars had been sold, one for every three Americans. Now, the question remains—how did this affect hats?

Ford Model T Centennial - 1926 Model T Assembly ...

Prior to the mass production of cars, walking was the main source of short-distance transportation. Carriages were commonly used for medium distances within a city, and trains were for long-distance travel. Commercial aviation didn’t exist for long-distance travel until just before the start of the Great Depression, and didn’t really take off until after the end of World War II. Because people didn’t need to travel far and often, they stayed within their city and traveled by foot every day, and because they were traveling by foot, they were under the sun all day long and needed something to cover their heads. Hats were a no-brainer.

Hats in fashion hit their peak around the 1920s, and set on a downhill path from there. At the same time, the FMC was able to flood the market with their Model Ts and almost completely dominate the American car market. Cars were widespread and used for everyday travel, taking people off of their feet and into cars with vinyl roofs (the steel roof was later applied in the mid-1930s). People suddenly realized that they really didn’t need hats inside their cars. They could go from house to car and from car to work. The car’s roof protected drivers and passengers from all kinds of weather. Why did they need to wear hats anymore?

Of course, the Great Depression and WWII immediately followed the 1920s, and I would argue this might have slowed the death of hats in fashion, at least for men. Women had already begun to phase hats out of everyday fashion in the 1930s, and hats were out of the norm by the 1940s. Men had interestingly delayed phasing out hats by almost a decade, and this might have been due to the large population of males who went to serve in the war. Hats and caps were standard in uniforms, and the older generation was already used to it. Young boys at home grew up around women (and a few men) that, although working towards the war effort, didn’t wear hats as part of everyday fashion. Paired with the Greaser subculture that hit American youth in the 40s and 50s, hats were quickly accelerated out of male fashion.

Hats aren’t all the way dead. We see snapbacks all the time, but that revival didn’t really happen until the 1980s and 90s with the rise of hip-hop and rap. While hip-hop helped bring hats back into fashion, it wasn’t to the same degree as hats pre-Model T. People are now dependent on cars more than ever before. They serve as short-, medium-, and long-distance transportation. Los Angeles was built on the assumption that everyone had cars. Why would anyone ever go back to a life where cars didn’t exist?

* Refers to Ford’s fiscal year (October 1, 1908 to September 30, 1909).