Published May. 8, 2021
In Oct. 2020, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong took a
on keeping politics out of the workplace. Sparked by employee walkouts
in reaction to Armstrong's reluctance to publicly comment on the BLM
movement, this stance was cemented in the wake of heated political
discussions preceding the Nov. 2020 US Presidential elections. In Apr.
2021, Basecamp founders
followed suit, stating that there were to be no more societal or
political discussions in workplace channels.
Both companies issued the statements alongside generous severance
packages ranging from three to six months' pay and benefits. In the
aftermath, Coinbase lost 60 employees, representing 5% of its workforce,
and Basecamp lost 20 employees, representing a staggering
35% of its workforce.
While long backstories are needed to examine those as case studies
(along with a sense of base rate attrition from such a severance policy
alone), this got me interested in the philosophical idea of what role
politics ought to play at work. If every company had to issue a "Yea or
nay?" directive tomorrow regarding politics in work platforms, what
should they do?
From the employee side, I get that people want to work somewhere that
reflects their values. I would certainly be reluctant to take a
comparable role at a payday loan provider or tobacco producer. For many
people, this reflection of values extends to working somewhere that
represents their political views. Identity at work, especially for
millenials seems to have moved from "What are we creating?" to "What do
we stand for?". The fusion of these has led to confusing wonders such as
Ben & Jerry's
page, which provides you with
8 Ice Cream and Beer Pairings Perfect for St. Patrick's Day
followed by a digestif of
The Derek Chauvin Murder Trial: What's At Stake. Both highly topical and important topics to be sure, but a little
more than I bargained for with my soft serve and sprinkles.
In my experience, I have had positive political experiences at work
which involved listening to people from specific groups share their
personal experiences and concerns on a relevant topic. Given the size
and absolute diversity of the workplace, I gained a perspective wholly
unavailable to me given my friend group outside of work. However, these
sessions involve sharing of exclusively mainstream left-wing views which
are from unanimous and I am confident that these public sharing sessions
would not be so well-received if they were right-wing, which hints at
the heart of the problem.
What people really want with politics in the workplace, as evidenced by
the walkouts in 2020, is a place to share their political views and have
them affirmed by leadership. Opposing views are loudly decried and end
up triggering many. Sharing political views on a podium, at work or
elsewhere, does not permit for safe rebuttal or dissent. Speaking to an
audience of more than a couple of people quickly triggers the identity
and posturing part of our brains and pushback is perceived as a threat
to be neutralized. Somebody must win the public opinion. What was once a
place to work together on creating a specific value to society quickly
devolves into another shouting match.
What really changes hearts and minds are individualized, intimate
conversations. People often say that you ought not to talk about
religion or politics at work but I disagree. In a one-on-one setting,
especially at work, it's much easier to know that we're on the same
team. We can argue about the whole world, move on positions without
losing face, and grab a drink afterwards, closer than we were before.
Things get hairy when you move to talking about politics at work
at scale. So to all the CEOs mulling over tomorrow's big "Yea
or nay?", vote "Nay". Leave the office as a place to drive specific
value and unify anyone interested in that mission; let the politics
follow from that unity and not divide it.
Published May. 5, 2021
Where have gone our beautiful text files?
The simple markdown or markup
Or the endangered .txt?
Think not of Microsoft Word docs
Save that for the businessmen and uninitiated.
Think not of Adobe PDFs
Save that for the lawyers and publishers.
Forget Apple Notes and Google Keep
Who imprison words within their walls.
A good text file is like good peanut butter,
it should contain only a single ingredient.
If Notepad can't read it then neither will I.
Bring back the beautiful text file.
Published May. 4, 2021
Baby, don't hurt me
Don't hurt me
A reminder to myself not to take this endeavor too seriously. Beware of
turning another mildly productive distraction into
something at stake. That is often the beginning of the end.
Published May. 3, 2021
Develop empathy as a rational tool. To be truly rational is to choose
the most effective method of persuasion.
In March 2019, I had one of the most eye-opening (pun intended)
experiences of my life.
"For the next three minutes, gaze into your partner's eyes."
Partner, in this case, referred to a stranger who'd I'd spoken to for
less than five minutes. Wasn't this supposed to be a course on
rationality? The previous weeks covered topics such as mental models and
Bayesian thinking so what was with this weird stuff? Mostly to avoid the
greater embarrassment of sitting out, I played along.
The first few seconds were easy, our eyes met with a mutual
acknowledgement of the comedy of the situation. The rest of the first
minute ended up being an unspoken game of "Who will laugh first?" The
discomfort of just gazing directly into a stranger's eyes for some
reason made everyone in the room want to giggle, presumably in the hope
that laughter would dissolve the awkwardness. It did not...
We get through the initial giggles and enter minute two. I stifled my
laughter and intensified my gaze, doubling down on my resolve to make it
through this without feeling totally emasculated. Somewhere within that
second minute, I found myself smiling again, but this time not out of
embarrassment. I noticed we're both smiling and that now there was a
sense of warmth and comfort associated with it. My intensity turned to
curiosity, "Who is this other human looking at me? How is she feeling?
How did she come to be staring into my eyes today?" And of course, "Is
she thinking what I'm thinking?"
The final minute ended far too quickly. By that time we were pointing
out interesting features in each other's eyes and reflecting on how
weird it is to be afraid of this. We're in the middle of sharing our
life stories interrupted—"Time's up."
"Now for the next two minutes discuss how you felt but start each
sentence with 'When you say that, I feel...' And state an actual
feeling: confusion, excitement, embarrassment. None of this 'I feel
like...' that we usually use, instead of actually sharing how
we feel. Share your acutal feelings. We are always mentally preparing
what we want to say next while the other person is talking, what they
say is usually secondary. See how that changes now."
What followed was what I can only describe as a conversation with a
friend of many years. Of the sort that you only have
after you've spent hours catching up on the mundane. There was
no shame in talking about my embarrassment or her intimidation, just
open sharing of raw emotions. For the rest of that day, I found myself
effortlessly engaged and attentive to whatever this stranger had to say.
My posture had changed from its usual skepticism to an open curiosity.
And incredibly, that instant reflex to start preparing what I wanted to
say next had disappeared, I wanted to make sure I caught her every word
first. In the span of five minutes, we'd accomplished what would
normally take a couple hours of EDM music and a healthy dose of MDMA.
Up to that point in my life, my approach to persuading others involved
presenting facts, setting up logical arguments, and calling out biases
or fallacies. This was in line with my understanding of rationality:
whoever presented the most undeniable evidence was right. I was, of
course, always right so cue my confusion at my general inability to
persuade almost anyone. I would occassionally convince a close friend of
something or another, often begrudgingly, so I chalked up the rest of my
failed attempts to the irrationality of the other party; they just
weren't thinking about things the right way.
But what I learned that day in the rationality course was that being
truly rational meant meeting other people where they were at. Once you
take even a little bit of time to build empathy, making yourself
understood becomes easy. My decision to continue my debate-style
approach despite its horrendous success demonstrated
my irrationality first and foremost. Being rational involved
understanding others' perspectives in their own words before
attempting to change them. In my childish world view, I had conflated
correctness with rationality, and ended up often missing the mark on
After that day, I immediately dove in to Marshall Rosenberg's work on
Nonviolent Communication, the source of inspiration for the
exercises. While going through the motions felt painfully awkward and
forced, the results were truly remarkable. Without even having the
conversations, I felt as if I understood people better, revitalizing my
posture towards relationships I'd soured for many years. I tried eagerly
to recommend it to anyone within earshot but pitching a YouTube
of an old man wearing hand puppets is admittedly not an easy sell.
Reassuringly however, after reading
Never Split the Difference and
How to Win Friends and Influence People, I realized that all
these books were saying the same thing, tailored to different audiences.
A hostage negotiator, a self-help guru, and an international peacemaker
all had the same basic truth: that people need to be understood to
change, and the only way to get there is to listen without trying to be
heard. Develop empathy as a rational tool. To be truly rational is to
choose the most effective method of persuasion.
Published May. 2, 2021
However many times this question has come up, the universal answer I
hear is "No". Perhaps this is a reflection of my circle or my
environment? Maybe I'm surrounded by people working in low-wage service
jobs or perhaps I'm in a country with a relatively low standard of
living? Alas no, this is the response from yuppies in their mid-20s
mostly earning more than $100k/year in two of the richest countries in
the world. Ironically, many of these people today would exceed the
definition of rich they themselves had given only a couple
years prior. Today, that old definition seems irrelevant and any new
definition is left vague.
We often snidely refer to rich people as the 1% and yet in my experience
1% and 2% sheepishly deny such classification, instead choosing to self
identify as "middle class". People are notoriously comparative
creatures, especially when it comes to money, but it seems that 98th
percentile income in a 90th percentile
is still insufficient to self-identify as rich. While this is a genuine
puzzle to me, I have a few rough thoughts as to why this might be the
Having worries or fears about money and thinking that to be
incompatible with being rich.
Not meeting up to previous generations' benchmarks of wealth.
Foremost, buying a detached home in the city.
Comparing against only those richer than you when defining who is
rich. Given how wealth is Pareto distributed, it's easy to find
someone making 10x or 100x more.
Guilt about one's own
lack of generosity
relative to what one expects of the rich.
Having a feeling that there's not much left over at the end of the
General social taboo to identify as rich. I still hear "no" in
intimate one-on-one conversations so I don't think this is it.
I don't purport to know why most people feel this way, perhaps they
don't know themselves. But what I do know is that by any reasonable
measure, they are rich, at least in a financial sense. If you answered
"no" to this question, I would ask you to consider why and whether that
is really true, and what being "rich" really looks like?
Growing up, I remember at some point asking my dad if we were rich; it
seemed like everyone at school lived more luxuriously than us and my mom
would often rebuke my asks with a sharp, "We don't have enough money."
But I was confused because we had recently moved to a big new house, a
big improvement over the old roach-infested apartment, and gotten a
shiny new minivan, a godsend at the time for my rapidly growing
frame. My dad gave me a nonresponse citing that it's not important, much
to my frustration. I had wanted to feel superior to the other kids.
Everyone else looked happier than me, and I had desperately wanted
affirmation that there would be a payoff for this repressive upbringing
and angst—that I'd have the last laugh in the end because this is
how you got rich. What my dad got right was that I was asking for the
wrong reasons. But what he failed to impress upon me were the right
The reason to ask this question to ourselves is not to gain a sense of
superiority over others or breed guilt within ourselves, but to bound
the empty pursuit of money and seek real happiness. It is far easier to
want more than it is to decide what is enough. And until we truly
believe we have enough, we can never find peace.
That Mazda MPV is still running to this day, bless its soul!
Published May. 1, 2021
In late January, I found myself unable to sleep. I felt anxious; a
little scared even. But most of all... I felt excited. What would
another day bring to the epic saga of r/wallstreetbets vs "Wall Street"?
Would GME continue its meteoric rise to $1000? Would paper hands prevail
and bring everything tumbling down? When would Elon or Ryan Cohen
weigh-in on whether the squeeze was squoze? It was impossible to say and
yet the possibilities continued to spiral through my mind. Every guy
even remotely aware of what was going on quietly had the same thought
pass through his mind: what it would be like if I became an overnight
How much skin did I have in this game you might ask? How deep was I in
$GME such that I was losing sleep over a meme?
Absolutely nothing. Zip. Nada.
And yet, this David vs Goliath narrative was powerful enough to draw me
in. The mass media headlines and 8 million member growth of
r/wallstreetbets in February told me that I was not alone. While this
type of story goes by many names, the prevailing word at the of writing
is populism. And though the "p" word has ugly connotations these days
and associations with far-right extremist groups, the reality is that we
all find ourselves caught up in the struggles of the everyman in some
The most worrying part for me was how emotionally invested I found
myself despite my complete lack of skin in the game. What does
that say about my susceptibility to other populist movements? Did I
really care about Robinhood investors triumphing over Wall Street or was
I just caught up in the excitement of watching conflict unfold and
Eric Hoffer in The True Believer calls out that mass movements
are much less about the cause itself and much more about how the
narrative unfolds and the personality traits of would-be movers. This
theory goes against our sense of being highly conscientious moral agents
but fits the evidence of getting caught up in GME or
identification with sports teams. Following the theory leads to the unsavory conclusion that there's
not a whole lot separating Redditors trying to cancel Vlad from
Robinhood and SJWs trying to cancel J. K. Rowling. Or, put more
extremely, not a lot separating violent rioters in Portland from
insurrectionists in the Capitol Building.
Despite Hoffer's book being published in 1951 when the consequences of
nationalism, fascism, and communism all loomed large, the social
psychology outlined is just as relevant 70 years later. The rise of
populism is real and not going anywhere. And though hindsight makes it
easy to classify which movements were right, it is not so easy to
predict whether we will be the righteous.
My suggestions on how to tackle this? Short-term: cut out news and
social media. The sensationalism and outrage is powerfully designed to
draw us into the movement of the day. Long-term: be explicit about your
values, write them down and revisit them every year. Having a strong
sense of values means that any new thing that wants to capture us must
first pass through the gauntlet of values.
Published Apr. 28, 2021
What are the "essential" things we should learn as students? Nowadays, I
often hear "coding is the language of the future" or "everyone should
learn how to program" but like most maxims, this is a gross
simplification. Yes, everyone who spends 8+ hours a day on a computer
should learn something about how to use it more effectively, but
everyone should not be a programmer. However, I firmly believe that
there are a few foundational skills outside of the current curriculum
that literally everyone should learn, especially before college when the
training wheels are kicked off. Curriculums are zero-sum so for
everything added, something must go; I would rank the following
topics/courses at least above grade school history, geography, and maybe
even a second language.
How to learn
Encapsulated by Barbara Oakley's Learning How to Learn. This is
something that sounds so obvious that everyone assumes they know it
already—they don't. The critical practical takeaway is knowledge
of how learning actually happens and how to take advantage of your own
psychology. Learning this breaks down the idea that there are subjects
you are good at and bad at, and replaces it with a set of tools to gain
mastery in any area.
Managing your time
Encapsulated by David Allen's Getting Things Done. Given how
little attention is paid to time management outside of the corporate
world, every young adult unfortunately learns this through the "sink or
swim" approach when transitioning from high school to college and
again from college to beyond. The big thing here is giving
students the idea that you can break down big looming projects, in life
and school, into simple actions they can take immediately. Whether they
stick to the exact process in the book is inconsequential, what matters
is instilling the belief that even for the most daunting and ambiguous
of tasks, there is always a simple next step to take. Otherwise,
ambiguity can only be tackled when
the Panic Monster
rears its head.
Reading efficiently and effectively
Encapsulated by Mortimer J. Adler's How to Read a Book. Forget
everything you've learned in school about how to read and start over the
right way; these 400 pages sum up what 12 years of formal education
could not. If you aren't reading the Table of Contents, you're doing it
wrong. Students should be able to learn how to quickly get the
gist of a book and go deeper in the rare instances it's needed. It's
crazy that we are never taught how to understand the big picture,
instead spending hours poring over single passages or specific words.
Once the required reading list goes from two books a semester to 6
papers and 3 books per class, I'd rather know how to find the
main message of a book in a few minutes than how to surmise what the
color green really meant in The Great Gatsby.
Published Apr. 27, 2021
The rigidity of SQL is both a blessing and a curse. Once you "get it",
you really get it, there are almost no surprises. But its inflexible
syntax and difficulty to test also means that it can take some time to
grok and lead to lots of silent errors.
Confusingly, SQL is not executed top to bottom, the manner in which a
human would read it. Reasoning about and reading SQL in the actual
execution order, as outlined below, provides much greater clarity. One
general tip is to use CTEs (Common Table Expressions AKA
WITH statements) liberally to keep things organized.
The most important part of any query and the source of most mistakes.
Reasoning about this involves visualizing, mentally or on paper, the
full expansion of each join. Make sure you can state exactly
what the the primary keys are on each table before joining. Write out
some rows you expect to be dropped with inner joins, some rows you
expect to be empty with outer joins, and some rows you expect to be
duplicated/expanded if you're not joining two tables at the exact same
level of aggregation. Joining at the wrong level of aggregation is
really easy and won't return any errors, quietly returning a completely
By the end of this step you should have a sense of some giant megatable
you're creating and be satisfied with what each row in the megatable
represents. This is likely different than what your left-most table
started with. Most of the columns in your megatable will never be used
and the columns you joined on will likely be duplicated—this is
Once you have your megatable, decide which rows you don't need. This
part is relatively well understood. The most common mistake seen stems
from trying to filter on fields in joined tables when nothing was
actually joined. Again, having a clear visualization of the megatable
will help avoid this. Also be explicit about how you handle nulls: if A
is null and B is 1, A != B may not do what you expect...
You should know what level of aggregation you need for your
output—only group by those fields! This is the second
most common source of confusion. If you find yourself starting to group
by numeric fields, stop! If you find yourself grouping by fields that
are 1:1 or 1:many with your main field, stop! Really common mistakes
would be grouping by city, state, and country or grouping by person_id,
person_name, and title. In both of these situations, what you're really
trying to do is just group by city or person_id first (within a CTE) and
then join in the additional fields; the additional grouping
fields are completely redundant! Adding all sorts of unnecessary
groupings makes the query perform worse and adds confusion.
Did you know that this even exists?
WHERE but applied at
the level of
GROUP BY. Only want to find duplicates? Only
care about groups above a certain threshold? This is where you encode
While this seems like the meat and potatoes when first learning, this is
really near the end of the process and should be straightforward after
thinking through everything else. Be frugal with what fields you're
SELECT * might be quick to write but could slow
you down 10x in run time. Window functions can get tricky and are
outside of the scope of this post.
You're almost there! Given how late this is in the execution, you can
order by all the fancy new fields you defined in the last step (aside
from window functions, womp womp).
You made it! Try to be frugal here as well since you probably just want
to make sure things are working. Forgetting this can lead to some long
wait times as your front-end tries to download 1 GB files when a few KB
would have sufficed.
Published Apr. 25, 2021
Choose less, decide more. The simplicity is well worth it.
While a rationalist economist may disagree, there is a profound
difference between choosing and deciding. Choosing is the slow process
of weighing options against each other, creating some sort of mental
ranking, and then reflecting on how optimal your process was
after-the-fact. Deciding is making up your mind either ahead of time or
within a few moments and then wholly welcoming the consequences.
We are generally taught the value of carefully choosing things. Most
engineering and business majors can relate to the experience of taking
entire courses related to this; Pugh matrices, Porter's Five Forces,
SWOT analyses and other junk are pedalled to students as
industry-standard decision making tools. Yet I can count on one hand the
number of times I've seen any of these show up in the real world, and
can count with no hands the number of times they were useful. There is a
place for being choosy: when making big life decisions around where to
live, who to be with, what our values are—but this choosy mode is
switched on far too often and the cost paid unwittingly.
While we focus our efforts on making sure we make the best possible
choice for what to buy or where to eat, we rarely consider the cognitive
load borne for these choices. We commonly spend 30 minutes deciding
whether to eat out, an hour deciding where to go, and 15 minutes
deciding what to order. When viewed through a maximalist lens of "did I
choose the best thing?", it's easy to rationalize that our final choice
from the best reviewed restaurant (cross-referenced on Google Reviews,
Yelp, and Reddit of course) really was an improvement over the
alternative. But the question we should really be asking ourselves is
what is the least amount of time I can spend to get an outcome
I'm satisfied with. As poker pro Annie Duke points out in
How to Decide, "The time you take to decide is time that you could be spending doing
other things, like actually talking to the person sitting with you in
The best part is that making decisions let's us have some fun while
getting us that time back. Spending too much money on eating out? Decide
to never order something over $11 off the menu. Spending hours agonizing
over that next $100 purchase? Decide to make up your mind after the
first review you read. Not sure where to eat? Decide on the first place
on Maps over 4.5 stars that you haven't been to. Not only will you find
this liberating, you'll also have a great conversation starter next time
your friends end up in a battle of "I don't know, what do you wanna do?"
Choose less, decide more. The simplicity is well worth it.
Published Apr. 24, 2021
I remember in my early trading days, at age twenty-five or so, when
money started to become easy. I would take taxis, and if the driver
spoke skeletal English and looked particularly depressed, I'd give him a
$100 bill as a tip, just to give him a little jolt and get a kick out of
his surprise. I'd watch him unfold the bill and look at it with some
degree of consternation ($1 million would certainly have been better but
it was not within my means). It was also a simple hedonic experiment: it
felt elevating to make someone's day with the trifle of $100. I
eventually stopped; we all become stingy and calculating when our wealth
grows and we start taking money seriously.
This quote from Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan caught me off
guard upon first reading and has lingered me with me since. The story
itself is hardly memorable, something I'd expect to find in the memoirs
of any self-absorbed Wall Street type. What really got me was the last
line: that there is some unflattering and unintuitive stopping point for
Reading this book at age twenty-five or so, when money started to become
easy, this was an uncomfortable pill to swallow. After a lifetime of
parsimony, which my close friends would be too eager to confirm, I was
very compelled by the arguments of Effective Altruism. I had paid off my
loans, gotten a healthy raise, and realized how little you need to live
comfortably with no dependents. The trifle of $100, while providing
almost no marginal utility to me, could provide a significant reduction
in the likelihood of someone contracting malaria or prevent iodine
deficiency in hundreds of others. Tipping taxi drivers generously became
easy, especially since most of those tips were reimbursable.
And then, subconsciously and slowly, it became difficult. After another
healthy raise and promotion, I oddly found myself second guessing my
prior commitments. The argument for generosity was just as compelling as
before but it felt a lot harder to give away money. Another
year passes and I experience a massive increase in income; enough to
start to question the purpose of money and its role in life. While this
is the point where most people (naively) think they would suddenly
become generous benefactors, I find myself growing
even stingier! What kind of moral deficiency was I afflicted
I coin this relationship the Parabola of Generosity. I'll save
you the bandwidth of an image with a few words. Imagine a concave
quadratic surface with the y-axis representing generosity and x-axis
representing wealth. Our generosity starts off very low or negative,
constrained by our complete lack of wealth, increases up to a point in
as we become self-aware of our relative wealth, and then decreases
sharply thereafter. The coefficients are dependent on the individual but
I believe that this general shape is universal (viewed locally).
It was around the time of finding myself past peak generosity that I
came across this passage from Taleb. I felt seen and understood, as if
I'd been let in on some blasé rite of passage of the wealthy.
Unfortunately though, I did not feel vindicated; having someone else
articulate what I was feeling did not give me the sense of righteousness
I would have liked.
While the Parabola provides an accurate description of experience, it
does not make a claim about why an inflection point exists. I
have yet to find a more satisfactory answer than what Taleb has
outlined: that we start taking money seriously. Wealth goes from a
feeling of abundance to a feeling of burden. I have a sense (maybe a
hope) that this quadratic relationship only appears so in a local sense
and upon zooming out, the relationship becomes cubic. That we reach some
inflection point of "fuck you" money, after which generosity begins
increasing again. This seems to hold true for the ultra-wealthy spanning
from the most villainized Gilded Age industrialists to Bill Gates.
According to Wikipedia, cubic parabolas are a thing so the theory still
As for where I'm at now, I am glad to report that I have not stopped
giving. Meditation and the occasional revisiting of works by Peter
Singer and Will MacAskill help the reasoned part of my brain set up
automated systems to bypass System 1. To someone experiencing something
similar, I'd advise taking a step back to evaluate how your values have
changed over time. If the change in wealth has outpaced the change in
values, it's worth overcoming that stinginess—before we find
ourselves writing our own self-absorbed Wall Street type memoirs.
Published Apr. 21, 2021
Over the last few years, fueled in part by curiosity and in part by the
search for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe,
and Everything, I have tried implementing a variety of lifestyle
changes. Most of these ideas have come from separate sources and some
have stuck more than others (I swear I'll start working out everyday
tomorrow). But taking a step back on some of the more impactful ones
paints an eerily familiar picture:
Rarely drink or do drugs. Inspired by my hatred of weekends
spent recovering from hangovers and by examples set by two friends
enjoying the same parties.
Abstain from porn and masturbation. Inspired by that one
Meditate first thing in the morning and often before bed.
Inspired by Sam Harris.
Rarely eat meat. Inspired by a course in air pollution
engineering and a long-time partner.
Read philosophy and religious texts. Inspired by desire to
find the Answer and catch up on
Rarely lie. Inspired by Sam Harris and a long-time partner. I
would say I never lie but...
Tithe. Inspired by a SEO savvy career quiz that led me to
Giving What We Can.
Reduce amount of "stuff". Inspired by anxiety around clutter
and desire to save more.
Intermittently fast. Inspired by David Sinclair's
The clear religious bent of this list would outdo many Muslims I know.
Yet my belief in a traditional God is no stronger than it was before. In
fact I'd wager that the intense angst and atheist identity formed in my
teenage years probably made me more resistant to these ideas than most.
But here we are. Like the final zoom out on
Art Attack, it is surprising how a series of small unrelated steps looks from a
big picture lens.
Does this mean the seemingly arbitrary rules handed down by religions
are really some emergent properties that arise from one's search for
truth and contentment? If so, does that justify the use of more
persuasive tools such as fear and shame to keep others on the path?
While I leave you to ponder the former, I draw a hard line against the
latter. It is easy, in hindsight, to preach about virtues, but applying
pressure wantonly does more harm than good. For me, each of these habits
came from the right conversation at the right time. And the only real
teacher was lived experience.
More insidiously, packaging virtues with negative emotions can backfire
in a spectacular way. Discovered individually and independently, virtues
serve as a rock solid foundation for identity; but handed down from God,
the slightest tremor can cause the house of cards to topple into crisis.
Inoculation means bottom-up learning. And bottom-up learning means
making your own mistakes.
Published Apr. 19, 2021
In a couple of recent discussions with friends around books to read and
suggestions, I drew some ire around my stance on recommendations and
book clubs—I am not open to contemporary or topical books. This
draws criticism without fail and yet my conviction on this has only
One compelling argument is summarized well in a Farnam Street
If we're reading what everyone else is reading it's harder to
think differently about problems, decisions, or life.
There is definitely an element of truth to this but, as my friend
pointed out, the Murakami quote around the other boys being crap is
elitist at best. While this vague call to a sense of independence is
appealing, there is a much better reason to focus on classics.
As Adler points out in How to Read a Book, the reason to read
classics is not to feel "cultured"—it's to understand
the rich literary tradition behind everything we know. One cannot really
understand the significance of Reading Lolita in Tehran without
first reading Lolita. Or truly walk with Dante through Hell
without knowing of Virgil. And this lack of understanding is often much
worse in nonfiction. People nowadays praise Piketty's
Capital in the Twenty-First Century with no knowledge of Marx's
Capital, which Piketty is transparently trying to build upon.
And of the few socialists who have actually read Marx, almost none have
read Adam Smith, whose theories Marx was rebutting. To read only
contemporary books is to spend your life skating on the tips of
icebergs, blind to the centuries of thought that have led us to where we
Accepting this truth is one thing, but acting on it is another. This
path can seem extremely daunting; once you start looking for predecessor
after predecessor, you realize it's turtles all the way down. And that
realization can be demotivating enough to justify abandoning the pursuit
altogether. Fortunately, there are
out there that help stop the infinite regress. While it would take many
lifetimes to traverse the entire iceberg of human knowledge, you'll be
surprised to see how far along you'll get simply by reading
The Odyssey or The Epic of Gilgamesh.
As the ancient Chinese proverb goes:
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
So dear reader, try taking that first step. Once you cross the chasm
from Heather's Picks to Homer's Picks, you'll never look back.
Published Apr. 18, 2021
I recently finished reading
"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" and found his life to be
often profound, sometimes cringe, and consistently wonderful. Here is my
ranking of some of his advice.
Words to live by
Above all else, always focus on true understanding. The kind
which you get from experiencing, teaching others, and extrapolating
beyond the homework. This idea was best summed up by an analogy in which
he blasts the Brazilian physics program for its emphasis on volume and
rote. Unfortunately, the style of education on blast has become the
Then I gave the analogy of a Greek scholar who loves the Greek
language, who knows that in his own country there aren't many children
studying Greek. But he comes to another country, where he is delighted
to find everybody studying Greek—even the smaller kids in
elementary schools. He goes to the examination of a student who is
coming to get his degree in Greek, and asks him, "What were
Socrates' ideas on the relationship between Truth and
Beauty?"—and the student can't answer. Then he asks the
student, "What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third
Symposium?" the student lights up and goes,
"Brrrrrrrrr-up"—he tells you everything, word
for word, that Socrates said, in beautiful Greek.
But what Socrates was talking about in the Third Symposium was the
relationship between Truth and Beauty!
What this Greek scholar discovers is, the students in another country
learn Greek by first learning to pronounce the letters, then the
words, and then sentences and paragraphs. They can recite, word for
word, what Socrates said, without realizing that those Greek words
mean something. To the student they are all artificial
sounds. Nobody has ever translated them into words the student can
Try and understand the phenomena itself instead of just the word.
The answer was, for the wind-up toy, "Energy makes it go."
And for the boy on the bicycle, "Energy makes it go." For
everything, "Energy makes it go."
Now that doesn't mean anything... The child doesn't learn
anything; it's just a word!
Make sure you have a real example to test your understanding.
He thinks I'm following the steps mathematically, but that's not what
I'm doing. I have the specific, physical example of what he's trying to
analyze, and I know from instinct and experience the properties of the
It is foolish to seek the wisdom of the crowd.
This question of trying to figure out whether a book is good or bad by
looking at it carefully or by taking the reports of a lot of people who
looked at it carelessly is like this famous old problem: Nobody was
permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the
length of the Emperor of China's nose? To find out, you go all over the
country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of
China's nose is, and you
average it. And that would be very "accurate" because you
averaged so many people. But it's no way to find anything out; when you
have a very wide range of pople who contribute without looking carefully
at it, you don't improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging.
Reflect on the value of what it is you're achieving. It's easy to get
caught up in the joy of achievement.
After the [atomic bomb test] went off, there was tremendous excitement
at Los Alamos. Everybody had parties, we all ran around. I sat on the
end of a jeep and beat drums and so on. But one man, I remember, Bob
Wilson, was just sitting there moping.
I said, "What are you moping about?"
He said, "It's a terrible thing that we made."
I said, "But you started it. You got us into it."
You see, what happened to me—what happened to the rest of
us—is we started for a good reason, then you're working
very hard to accomplish something and it's a pleasure, it's
excitement. And you stop thinking, you know; you just stop.
Bob Wilson was the only one who was still thinking about it, in that
- Make learning fun. You won't get very far otherwise.
"I learned that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real
Don't overestimate your competition. You never know when the fifty
person chemistry team you're competing against turns out to be just
Feynman and a bottle-washer.
"Learn what the rest of the world is like. The variety is worthwhile."
Be afraid when you find yourself wanting to drink or do drugs
"To be a practical man was, to me, always somehow a positive virtue,
and to be 'cultured' or 'intellectual' was not. The first was right,
of course, but the second was crazy."
"I've very often made mistakes in physics by thinking the theory isn't
as good as it really is, thinking that there are lots of complications
that are going to spoil it—an attitude that anything can happen,
in spite of what you're pretty sure should happen."
Don't worry about how esteemed anyone is in conversation, worry only
about your ability to reason through the matter at hand. That's the
type of person who the esteemed surround themselves with.
Feynman on imposter syndrome: "You know, what they think of you is so
fantastic, it's impossible to live up to it. You have no
responsibility to live up to it!"
"When you're young, you have all these things to worry
about—should you go there, what about your mother. And you
worry, and try to decide, but then something else comes up. It's much
easier to just plain
decide. Never mind—nothing is going to change
When asked about his experience at an interdisciplinary conference on
the "ethics of equality": "This conference was worse than a Rorschach
test. There's a meaningless inkblot, and the others ask you what you
think you see, but when you tell them, they start arguing with you!"
On grading elementary school textbooks: "The definitions weren't
accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous—they weren't
smart enough to understand what was meant by 'rigor.' They
were faking it. They were teaching something they didn't understand,
and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you
are the easiest person to fool."
Proceed with caution
- Pursuing lucid dreaming for sexual excitement.
As a professor, asking students at your university to pose nude for
- Accepting a brothel owner's commission for a nude drawing.
- Testifying in court about the merits of a topless dancing bar.
Going into a sensory deprivation chamber for 2.5 hrs on ketamine.
Crawling around your floor trying to see you can smell your own
Driving straight back to work after your wife's death and telling your
coworker, "She's dead. And how's the program going?"
- Getting into bar fights in Buffalo.
Picking up a girl by unironically telling her, "You...are worse than a
Sleeping with someone at her motel after she tells you she's
a newlywed on her honeymoon.
Published Apr. 14, 2021
I'd imagine most people reading the title are either relieved to finally
hear what they haven't been allowed to say their whole lives or are
already coming up with answers for why I'm wrong. I'm not talking about
lowercase sports, the games we play for fun, fitness, and competition. I
am saying that Sports — the televised media phenomenon involving
following favorite teams, tracking stats, and arguing about players
— are dumb.
There is an element of this which I think nobody will disagree with.
Everyone at some level is aware that how many times someone throws a
ball through a hoop or carries a ball past a painted line doesn't
matter. And yet, people defend their love for Sports with a passion.
People often argue that their passion for Sports stems from their
passion to see people reach pinnacles of human achievement and
athleticism. But if this were the only or main reason, we would expect
the most useful or relatable proficiencies to be the most highly
esteemed. The fact that you know the names of more basketball players on
a single team than you do master carpenters, ultramarathoners, and
memory athletes combined should prove that this love for achievement is
not the key factor.
Looking past the facade, Sports are really just a way for us to revel in
our tribalistic tendencies in a socially acceptable way. They start off
as normal entertainment and offer an easy way to connect with others and
have fun. But at some point we find ourselves transformed from spectator
to sports fan. When the outcome of the game starts triggering an
emotional response, the player or the team becomes a part of our
identity. And this identification with and glorification of Sports is
where the heart of the issue lies.
What we tie our identities to, and thus what ends up getting elevated to
celebrity status in society, is a reflection of our values. Ambitiously,
we can think of values such as pushing the frontiers of human
achievement or seeking fundamental truths. More simply, we can think of
values such as living a healthy life or fostering loving relationships.
But what values are reflected when we tie our identity to competition
over useless games based on geographical location?
While this seems like a scathing review of Sports, I actually don't have
a problem with just watching sports. Have fun and enjoy the spectacle of
seeing giant superhumans dunk rubber balls! Just take a step back to
reflect the next time you find yourself upset about a certain team
losing or arguing about what a player ought to have done. What is it you
really care about?
Published Apr. 5, 2021
Stick to one club. Passion stems from honing a skill.
Through most of my schooling, I was almost never involved in
extracurricular activities. Growing up, I chalked this up to my parents'
haughty attitude towards such things and the constant refrain that
studying was all that mattered. But reflecting on my
previous post, I
realize that there was more at play.
There was a steady stream of trying out what was "cool" or "strategic"
such as basketball, Model UN, DECA, or FSAE but then dropping out after
the first couple weeks when the novelty wore off and I realized that I
wasn't very good. People talked about finding your passion and so I
surmised that because I was not passionate about these activities, I
should drop them. What nobody told me was that passion is found
by building competency and not the other way around. By
quitting everything which I didn't naturally excel at, I kept eluding
the very thing I was chasing. It was not until starting a full-time job,
in which quitting wasn't really an option, that I started to see the joy
of developing a craft, regardless of what that craft is. Suddenly I
found myself interested in things I'd never thought about in my life
such as graphic design, public speaking, and data analysis.
We often poke fun at "sellout" careers such as accountant or management
consultant. "Who ever grows up wanting to be an accountant?", we jest.
Now don't get me wrong, having met plenty of accountants and
consultants, I can confirm that there are no shortage of sellouts and
people "playing it safe". But what's missed is the large number of
people who found their passion as they honed their craft,
something that those repeating the tired trope likely have not
The hidden beauty of a club or profession is the sense of community that
comes from surrounding yourself with people dedicated to honing the same
craft. Through competition and camaraderie, the spark of passion grows
into a flame. Seeming trivialities such as accounting exams or tech
conferences become rites of passage and hotbeds of learning. So much
depth becomes available in the simple exercise of coming to terms with
your own incompetence. Stick to one club. Passion stems from honing a
Published Apr. 4, 2021
Do one thing at a time. Stop multitasking, it's a lie.
One of the worst habits I had built up was trying to do more at once,
thinking that this was the key to productivity. This idea even pervaded
into relaxation where listening to music, reading, chatting with
friends, watching TV were more often done in concert than alone or even
in pairs. And my god what a cacaphony that was. What
felt like speeding at 100 mph through the climax of
Limitless, was really my brain working on overdrive to complete
the most mundane tasks with minimum comprehension. Unfortunately, my
psyche finds the intensity of the overstimulation to be far more
addictive than the sobering reality of how half-hearted my messages were
or the inability to recall which songs had played for the last 30
Overcoming that addiction to stimulation is a Herculean task. Like the
hydra, two new notifications or recommendations pop up for every one we
are able to ignore, leading to that all too familiar fatigue on the
other side of a YouTube black hole. And yet, we're all aware of the
perfect contentment, even bliss, that comes from concentrated focus. I'd
urge my younger self to think about the conversations with friends where
the rising sun was the only reminder of how much time had passed. To
think about the twilight hours before an exam when stress finally took
over and problem sets started melting away. I'd urge him to answer
honestly which moments truly resembled happiness and productivity.
While this realization would have been no panacea for distraction, it
would have at least served to dispel the myth of multitasking. That it
was not just an inability to multitask correctly but a misguided pursuit
altogether. And in that dispelling provide at least a moment of clarity
on what is really worth pursuing. Do one thing at a time. Stop
multitasking, it's a lie.
Published Apr. 1, 2021
Go to class. Don't worry about notes or what you miss. Just show
One of my top regrets in life is my abysmal class attendance in
university. I'd imagine a plot of my class attendance vs time would look
almost like a perfectly straight line from 100% in the first few months
of freshman year to 20% in the final months of senior year. The regret
does not stem from the lost GPA but rather the lost learning. I can
already see my younger self rolling his eyes and mentally checking out.
And as this is a directive for that younger self, this seems like a lost
cause. But bear with me, since I think there is something that younger
Going to class is the best way to passively learn and collect extra GPA.
Like reading, going to class gets built up as this great virtuous
activity; one that requires the utmost attention, pre-reads, furious
note-taking, and questions that are 9 parts flexing your understanding
to the other 150 kids:1 part clarification. And yes, those will all
absolutely enrich the experience. But the beauty of class is that you
still gain something with absolutely none of that.
As mentioned in Mortimer J. Adler's condescendingly yet aptly-named
How to Read a Book, it's important to get the gist of a book
before really analyzing it. On the first pass, focus on what you do
understand, instead of what you don't. This seemingly simple advice
contradicts most of schooling where you can't progress until you
understand. And I think this simple shift in focus, away from frantic
dictation to a laidback absorption of occasional insight, is what's
missed. The rest can (but probably won't) come later. Take the freebies
while you can. Go to class. Don't worry about notes or what you miss.
Just show up.
Published Mar. 30, 2021
Just keep reading. Doesn't matter what, doesn't matter when, doesn't
matter for how long. Just keep reading.
I, like most people my age, used to love reading as a kid. Like
seriously love it. To the point where my mom would have to come take
away my flashlight after a new Artemis Fowl or
Harry Potter book came out so I wouldn't stay up all night
reading. And yet, as I grew up and video games got fancier, broadband
internet entered our home, and the nightmarish social pressures of
puberty became a thing, I forgot about reading. It wasn't a strong
conviction or anything, it just simply faded away. Reading became an
activity for school, not for fun. And then at some point reading became
a virtue, a painful rite of passage to show how smart you were.
As a result, it took me a full decade to start reading again. And many
months after that before I started reading for fun. Ten years of
learnings gone, emotions not experienced, perspectives unchallenged. It
was a quote from Naval Ravikant that made me realize what I got wrong 10
Everybody I know who reads a lot loves to read, and they love to read
because they read books that they loved. It’s a little bit of a
catch-22, but you basically want to start off just reading wherever you
are and then keep building up from there until reading becomes a habit.
And then eventually, you will just get bored of the simple stuff.
There were plenty of books that I loved to read but at some point that
seemed like the wrong thing to do. Reading for fun was no longer cool
and then over time, it became a big thing. A reminder to drop the
pretense and just pick up a book, any book, when I'm restless or on
vacation would have been great. Keep the habit, embrace the guilty
reads! Just keep reading. Doesn't matter what, doesn't matter when,
doesn't matter for how long. Just keep reading.
Published Mar. 29, 2021
Every time I read the work of wunderkinder like Vitalik Buterin or
Patrick Collison, I find myself awestruck by what they had accomplished
at such a young age. During the time in which they were reading
cryptography papers and great Western classics, I was busy organizing
drop parties in Varrock and PQs in Kerning City. Take Patrick's
for 10-20 year olds for example. How many 10 year olds could actually
internalize this? I'm not even sure that I was thinking on this level at
20 and can only hope to get there at 30.
This stark difference has made me wonder what advice would have
reached through to an obstinate arrogant younger me. While I don't think
I could have convinced that self to read esoteric books or practice
meditation, I do think that simple
the lessons could have piqued some curiosity. And so, the next few posts
will be my attempt at collecting some of these directives.
Directive #1: Always listen to your future self.
This is part of an effort to build a habit of writing, inspired by
#100DaysToOffload. Please feel free to shame me into keeping some pace as I drop off on
Published Jan. 10, 2021
You ease into your booth for a cup of coffee with friends. It took a
bit of convincing to get people to switch cafes but you’re finally
here: WhatsCup. You’re aware of all the cameras overhead watching your
every move and you know it’s still owned by Facebucks, the same parent
company as the last cafe, but hey, at least the cameras here are
closed-circuit and there are no hidden microphones at the tables. It’s
to help serve you better you’re reassured.
“Another iced WhatsFrapp with the whip cream on the side?”, the
You nod suspiciously; they’ve been tracking your purchases. But hey,
it makes for more personalized service and at least there are no god
damn mics at the table.
A few months pass and you catch a glimpse of
a new notice
by the entrance. Starting next month, all the footage and data will be
shared with the rest of Facebucks. Who you talk to, when you visit,
what you ordered — everything is now shared. There's no mention of an
opt out. And what about the armies of third-parties Facebucks is
affiliated with? You have to squint to read the fine print. It’s all
shared with third parties as well. All to help serve you better you’re
reassured. “Your privacy is our priority” it states boldly.
“Didn’t I say no to this a few years back? What about the the sign
reading ‘You control your privacy’?”, you ask.
You think you hear the camera overhead zoom in a little but you’re not
“Management”, the barista shrugs apologetically, “Can I get you
another iced WhatsFrapp?”
You look down the street at
Sig & Nal’s. It’s a
nonprofit with a 4.8 star rating and prides itself on just serving you
and your friends coffee by donation; no cameras, no tracking. They
even have the building plans available for anyone to verify.
You look back at your friends settling into the usual booth, unfazed,
and the sea of cameras silently watching overhead. What do you do?
Published Nov. 15, 2020
When discussing the topic of change or trying something new, I often
hear the refrain, “I know myself, I wouldn't like X” or, “I'm not a Y
person”. And while there is much wisdom and value in the old aphorism
of “know thyself”, I think we would all stand to benefit by knowing
ourselves a little less.
As Yuval Noah Harari summarizes in Sapiens, humankind has been driven
by shared, often subconscious, narratives. And while these narratives
have enabled us to send people to the Moon, they have also served as
the backbone of every bloody war. And while it can be easy to
unsubscribe from shared narratives, it's important to realize that
there are a great many internal narratives we carry as well.
And similarly, our internal narratives can bring out the best and the
worst in us.
For example, throughout most of my life I had a crystal clear, staunch
understanding—nay a fact!— about myself, that I was not “a
morning person”. What exactly “a morning person” was I did not know
but I was certain that my 4:00 am – 12:00 pm sleep schedule in
university certainly disqualified me from consideration. Fast-forward
a couple years and after being in a situation in which I could enjoy a
nice hot breakfast and flat white only if I woke up before 6:30 am
(early birds do get the worms after all), I decided that the alone
time and free meal were worth an earlier alarm. Seemingly overnight, I
started to hear all my coworkers say how they could never do
the same because they were not morning people. How could this be when
I was not a morning person either? What had changed? All I had done
was tap my phone a couple times to dial my alarm back.
Simply put, I just let go of a narrative. I learned that my “I'm not a
morning person” narrative was as bogus as my childhood “I'm a boy and
boys like cars” narrative. What took precedence was the narrative of
“Of course I can do this”, a less confining and yet equally
self-fulfilling mantra. And loosening this rigid sense of identity has
led to so many (generally positive) changes that I'm left considering
the ship of Theseus and how illusory this whole identity thing was to
So next time you're faced with a positive change that seems way out of
character, don't “know thyself”. Take a second to think of whether the
change aligns with who you want to be instead of who you
are. And then simply try. You'll inevitably wake up at 1:00
pm on a weekend but that's okay. Drop the “I'm failure” story and just
try again tomorrow. You'll be surprised at who you can be when you
stop trying to be who you are.
Published Oct. 1, 2020
After thinking about the whole logistic regression thing for a while,
I was confused how we got to the magic e^x function considering our
goal was merely to go from a crude linear approximation of a
probability to a meaningful probability bounded between 0 and 1. While
there are infinitely many ways to get there,
here are a
few arguably simpler examples I came up with to also achieve the same
outcome. Notably, I was curious why we do we not use the x/abs(x)
version when that gives us a much crisper binary outcome?
The problem breaks down into answering the following:
- How can we make sure our output is positive?
- And how can we make sure our output is bounded at 1?
But thinking about this, we can see that there are infinitely many
ways to do this. So again, why an exponential?
I can come up with intuitions that help us understand why we use the
equation we use: An exponential reflects the idea that an increase
in X result in an increase in p(X) and a decrease in X results in a
decrease in p(X). In other words, a negative coefficient means a
decrease in probability and vice versa.
Exponentials? :check: Lines? :check: Squares? :x: Absolute? :x:
An exponential, by definition, reflects the idea that the effect a
step change in X has on p(X) depends on our current value of X. In
other words, if we’re considering the effect of income on probability
of default, it matters whether we are going from an income of $0k–$10k
Exponentials? :check: Lines? :x: Squares? :check: Absolute? :x:
And what about the +1 in the denominator? We could have used any
number > 0. It seems 1 is just a convenient choice to help give
meaning to p(X) / (1-p(X)). We could just as correctly use +2 or +3,
but then we would just be carrying around a factor of 2 or 3. So we
just pick +1 arbitrarily to make things simpler.
Hopefully these ramblings kind of help understand the seemingly
magical appearance of e^x in this application. As with a lot of other
statistical applications, the formula chosen is due to thoughtful
convenience and not an absolute truth.
 You can just as legitimately use x/abs(x) to create your own
 These may not be the actual reasons why this equation was chosen…
 I guess this really just means that we want dy/dx > 0 for all x?
 I guess this really just means that we want d^2y/dx^2 ≠ 0?