I wrote recently about the path of learning SQL and I wanted to take a
little excursion into what step 6 can look like. In that recent post, I
provided examples of when one can use window functions. We generally
want to compare things between days or some other aggregated measure.
Unfortunately, as anyone working with data knows, the source data is
often at a transactional level with many many records per day. This
problem is easily handled by CTEs: first we aggregate our records by day
as a CTE and then we apply the window functions to the aggregated CTE.
But, did you know that this can (in most SQL engines) be elegantly and
concisely written without the use of a CTE? Let's take a look
at an example.
Let's say that we have a table of temperature recordings and we want to
compare the change in daily highs. We have a table
temps that records the time and
temp at given reading. And because we are sane and
sensible, we record our temperature in Celsius.
The first step would involve figuring out the max temperatures for each
SELECT date_trunc('day', time) AS day, max(temp) AS max_temp
GROUP BY 1
ORDER BY 1
Which gets us:
Now with a little window function wizardry, we can compute our
WITH daily AS (
SELECT date_trunc('day', time) AS day, max(temp) AS max_temp
GROUP BY 1
ORDER BY 1
lag(max_temp) OVER(ORDER BY day) AS yesterday_max,
max_temp - lag(max_temp) OVER(ORDER BY day) AS dod_change
Which gets us:
All is well and we have what we need. But we can do better than that!
SELECT date_trunc('day', time) AS day,
max(temp) AS max_temp,
lag(max(temp)) OVER(ORDER BY date_trunc('day', time)) AS yesterday_max,
max(temp) - lag(max(temp)) OVER(ORDER BY date_trunc('day', time)) AS dod_change
GROUP BY 1
ORDER BY 1
Slick! If you look carefully, all we really did was sub in
max(temp) and date_trunc('day', time) into our
window function where we previously had used the aliased fields
max_temp and day respectively. This nesting
can look quite confusing at first, especially if you start doing things
like sum(count(*)) OVER() to get the total count of records
by day but I think it is wonderfully clear when you understand what's
Like all things, practice makes perfect. Don't expect to get this right
the first time. But next time you see this pattern of aggregation then
window function, stretch yourself and see if you can do it in one shot.
Who knows who you can become with all the extra time saved from writing
those 5 extra lines of code!?
One of the first barriers I ran into was in step 3, trying to wrap my
head around window functions. Fortunately there are
that provide in-depth explanations of how window functions work which
certainly helped me in getting to step 3 and step 6. But I want to focus
on perhaps a more important aspect of getting to step 3: when should I
even use window functions? What types of problems will they help solve?
Fundamentally, when thinking through any SQL problem, one must think in
terms of records. What information does each record in the table
represent? Do I only care about certain records? Time to think of the
WHERE. Do I need records from a different table?
FROM clause. Do I care about records in aggregate?
GROUP BY clause. Do I only care about specific groups?
HAVING clause. The vast majority of the time, this basic
syntax will get me what I need. By thinking very carefully about what I
want to happen to 3 or 4 records, I can get a sense of the shape of my
However, sometimes when breaking down a problem, I run into a roadblock:
what if I need information from some other records to compute
information about this record? For example, let's say I have
daily records of the weather, what if I want to compare today's record
against yesterday's record? Running through the list of basic SQL
clauses, I realize that none of them quite solve this problem. Enter
The biggest clue to use window functions is when you need to pull
information from other records, into this record.
Okay... Well when is that? Since that statement is a little opaque,
let's think of a couple examples and break down how they fit the
Calculating day-over-day change: To compute day-over-day change, I
need to compare the record at time t with the record at
time t-1. After a bit of searching, I find that the window
function I need is lag(temp) OVER(ORDER BY day).
Calculating 7-day trailing average: Initially this seems like I want
to GROUP BY week. But when I break down the problem in
terms of records, I realize that what I'm actually trying to do is for
time t, take the average of the previous six records,
t-6, and this record t. After some searching and
trial and error, I find that I need to
avg(temp) OVER(ORDER BY day ROWS 6 PRECEDING).
Calculating percent total: Let's say I have a table containing how
many steps I've taken by day and I want to figure out what percentage
of the total amount of steps each day represents. To do that, I need
to compare the record at time t to all the other
records across time 0 to time infinity. In this
case, I would need to sum(steps) OVER() the other records
to get my denominator.
Calculating running total: Now I want to know how many steps I've
taken for the entire year. Doing that means that for time
t, I need to grab all the records from t=0 upto
time t. Some more searching would tell me that I need to
sum(steps) OVER(ORDER BY day)
Hopefully these examples give you a better picture of when window
functions are the right tool to use. They may not be something you use
everyday but when you inevitably run into this inter-record problem
space, they really make your life easier. As a fun aside, know that all
window functions could be replaced by a single CTE and join, which is
how these inter-record problems were solved up until recently. Once you
start to feel a solid footing on step 3, try replacing your window
functions with joins to start the climb to step 4.
Fret not my worried readers, I have not given up on #100DaysToOffload.
After a brief few weeks of vacation, I had indeed resumed writing
regularly, perhaps even moreso than I had before. Where are the articles
you may ask? Are these on a separate blog or column!? No, faithful
readers, I would never betray you like that. For the past couple weeks I
have been writing plenty of code!
What always strikes me is how elastic the brain can really be. Ever
gotten back with an ex? Picked up a bike after a few years? Or even just
started to read again? After a few uncanny minutes, your brain suddenly
goes "brrrr" and snaps back into a rhythm. Writing for me — well,
yeah it's the exact opposite...
Perhaps I have not written enough in my life but after finding a good
rhythm the elastic in my brain snaps back to not knowing how to write a
clean sentence. And with writing arbitrary code, it's even worse. But
fortunately, the elasticity goes both ways. After some practice problems
and leetcode to get over the basic syntax struggles, things start to
click again. My brain suddenly digs up that buried knowledge on
recursion and linked lists and big O! The "brrrr" starts again.
My goal with writing is to change that default. Yes I'd like to get
better, and I think I am. But what I want most is to remove that pain,
that fear of picking a skill back up after ignoring it for a while. So
with most of the coding out of the way, I hope to return to the
regularly scheduled programming.
Consumerism, conformism, and anxiety. These are three words I have tried
hard to avoid in recent years. And yet, after watching this excellent
video essay by J.J. McCullough on
What is Middle Class?, I can say that these three words truly capture a lot of the culture I
find myself steeped in, for better and worse.
Getting super identified over specific brands? Check. Finding pride in
little material luxuries? Check.
One of the things I have struggled with is the tension between wanting
to achieve "greatness" and finding gratitude towards with the simpler
things. The idea that this tension between achieving individuality and
reaching common goals is a "middle class" idea is an interesting one. It
makes me wonder what individualist goals the other middle class
immigrant families I grew up around were trying to achieve.
Wow do I remember the social anxieties experienced growing up. Careful
deliberation around which tableware to buy, especially the useless ones
meant only for display. And the strict adherence to avoiding the slang
that my parents would use when talking to friends and family; having
children speak in slang is, of course, a sign of being low class.
I find so much of my introspection these days attempts to wholesale
reject these characteristics that are so emblematic of the world around
me. My real takeaway from this video is that it is possible to
appreciate middle class culture as what it is, without adopting the
values as my own. Perhaps one day, I will be able to let go of some of
these values more completely. But until then... Coke over Pepsi, PS over
Xbox, and Mac over PC any day — come at me.
Before starting to post more, I was very cognizant about who the target
audience of my posts was. If nobody wanted to read it then why write at
all? And what did I have to say that was both original and additive to a
topic? This naturally created a very high bar which resulted in many
interesting thoughts that I dismissed entirely and a few other thoughts
that I had thought through in many ways but felt I couldn't polish
enough to justify a post. The result? A blog with only a single post and
While discussing a slanderous
on the New York Times with a couple friends, I found the author's
message to "just write" really hit home. Quality, correctness, and
originality be damned, Rhinehart exhorts, "Write what you want
to write. Write what you really think. The truth will come
out." Amusingly enough my overall impression of the article was that it
was poorly written and quite rambly, but that was the exact point!
Despite my negative stylistic review, it had sparked a great discussion
about the merits of mass media and journalism and left our little group
with a great new meme about catching "octopus brain". And the beauty of
it is that this article was written for no one but the author.
I see my blog as some version of this. Most of what I write are personal
meditations that I like to put into the digital aether. The advice and
prompts are really written for different versions of me. Realizing and
remembering that liberates me from the need for perfection or to keep an
audience in mind.
Hopefully these musings resonate with you in some way or another. If you
think it sucks, that's great! Write about it and send me a link, or
let's chat about it on our next call. If you think it's great, do the
same. I see any additional thoughts outside of my own to be gravy on
top. And if one of my poorly written, rambly articles sparks a
discussion for your friend groups then consider me sincerely honored.
The moment I first learned about Grimm's Fairy Tales, I was
floored. Having grown up watching boxes of old Disney VHS tapes, I had
come to believe that all children's tales followed the whitewashed arcs
accessible to even the most coddled children. And while I still think
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a beautifully animated and fun movie,
it's just not quite the same knowing that the stepmother's original
intention was to harvest Sneewittchen's organs for consumption.
Recently I have been having the same experience going through the Old
Testament and realizing how R-rated it is compared to popular references
and interpretations. My preconceived notion was of this old stuffy book
filled with draconian rules that nobody really follows — and in
some ways that is true. But what they don't tell you is that the
overwhelming majority covers the spectrum of life that I guess was
typical for 1500 BC; including numerous genocides, rapes, kidnappings,
and instances of human trafficking.
What they don't tell you is that the story of Samson is as much about
his philandering as it is about his strength. That Noah gets wasted and
presumably fondled by his son after saving life on Earth. Or that the
story of Moses is as much about massacring the native Canaanites for a
land grab as it is about freeing the slaves from Egypt.
While these stories are beyond the pale today, they portray a far more
believable and ultimately compelling narrative of how a religious
identity is formed. The need to unify around a Founding Myth
and to execute on it at all costs becomes clear only in relation to the
contemporary alternatives. And the suffering and misery that follows
from a failure to adhere to the ideals are what reinforce the message.
Colored by those early Disney movies, my expectation was that these
stories were filled with white knights overcoming some singular tragic
flaw to save the people from the obvious tyrant. But I'm glad that it is
turning out to be more Sneewittchen than Snow White — the tales of
envy, revenge, and petty ambition are as relatable today as they were
then. Despite more than 3000 years of wisdom handed down from cultures
across the world and unbelievable material wealth, it seems the human
condition has remained unchanged.
Imagine a delicious plate of pad thai, fresh and ready to eat. You can
smell the peanuts and chili powder. You can see the steam rising as you
prepare yourself for the first bite.
If you're like me, then this thought probably elicited at least somewhat
of Pavlovian response. You probably have at least a little bit more
saliva at the ready for the pad thai that's not there. No worries, we
can just swallow the extra saliva and move on with our day. Nothing
weird about that last bit, right?
Now instead imagine spitting that extra saliva into a clean cup. And
imagine swallowing the saliva from that cup. Yeah... Bleh.
What is it about these two acts that elicits such a different response
from our brain? By all reason we should be pretty much indifferent
between these two acts. Yet despite all our enlightened faculties, some
deep primal disgust cannot be overriden. How strange our neurochemistry
is, and how poorly we understand it. Next time you feel disgust or
revulsion, pause to think about; it's likely you do far more disgusting
things on a daily basis.
As a painfully honest joke in consulting went, "Do something once and
you're sold as a practitioner, do something twice and you're sold as an
expert." Recently, I became an expert in book clubs. Based on that
expertise and extensive market research (discussions with friends), I am
here to publish some best practices on how to conduct your own book
Align on objectives. Is your book club merely a pretense for wine
night with the girls? A way to affect social change? Or to
rip through classics well over your reading level to flex on
steep yourself in literary history? All of these reasons are
separately valid but I would advise against putting a wannabe
philosopher-king in a room with Karen from work looking to unwind on a
Decide on a pace and stick to it. This is what separates being in a
book club from telling your friends that you're in a book club. Think
about how much time you would normally spend reading in a week and
assume maybe half of that will go into your book club. It's easy to
get overly ambitious here, nobody really wants to raise their hand as
the slow reader. But trust me, everyone going at the same pace is much
better than showing up with a handful of excuses and some extra wine.
Ensure that you could have a political discussion with the
members. Whether you're reading
The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Das Kapital, the
discussion will inevitably veer towards life and society. If you can't
have open contentious discussion with these people, your book club
probably won't end well. The biggest trap here is not necessarily
having different political views but not viewing someone else as an
Choose the right book. This seems obvious and should follow from the
objectives but this crucial step can feel like a UN General Assembly.
If there's not a clear book that inspired the idea in the first place,
start with a general theme, find a general time period, and go from
there. When in doubt, don't go for
That's all the time I have today for pro bono expert advice. Please
reach out to me for additional hourly consultation. Results are not
guaranteed but slides are.
At a recent talk at work, the speaker off-handedly mentioned something
that stuck with me:
If I don't look back at my work a year from now and think it was crap,
then I should probably be in management.
This guy is currently an individual contributor (IC) but had spent
enough time as an engineering manager that this comment was not entirely
tongue-in-cheek. The idea is that ICs should be improving themselves
sufficiently to question previous work. In my conversations with other
ICs, I have found this to be almost universally true. The more ambitious
the person, the more crap things look in hindsight!
I first noticed this almost exactly a year after starting full-time
work. From slides to presentation style to spreadsheets, I cringed at
almost everything I had put out. One year later and that still held
true. Whether it's in the approach taken or simply the speed of
execution, the glances in the rearview mirror continue to be ugly.
Progress is a funny thing.
Now in some ways this might seem obvious. Absolute improvement in a
given domain probably follows an S-curve and if you're working across
different domains, you're almost guaranteed to be in the exponential
section of at least one of those S-curves. Despite knowing that in the
abstract, it's hard to feel detached from your current work
right now. Even if I hope to look back and pick apart all the
ways in which my work was crap, I would be absolutely devastated to have
someone else say that to me at this moment. Our egos cannot take the
criticism in the same way until we've achieved some distance from work
and become more confident in who we are.
That said, thinking about this in the abstract helps feel at least a
little bit better about critical feedback for my current work. And if
that stops being true then hopefully you're reading the musings of your
We are often reminded these days to treat ourselves. Books and studies
around habit forming will recommend positive reinforcement of good
habits by rewarding yourself for each positive behavior. My newest bad
habit shows that taking this mantra too seriously is like
taking 2 steps forward and n steps back, where
n represents a number which I don't want to think about. The
initial objective was to explore the new cities I'd moved to and get
myself out for some longer walks or bike rides. Fresh air and exercise,
what could go wrong?
To incentivize myself I set some destination point for some new treat,
usually a donut or ice cream shop at least half an hour away, to act as
a reward for accomplishing this goal. This worked to great effect and
had me exploring all around nearby neighborhoods all for the cost of
some spent calories. Unfortunately, it turns out that my brain's sugar
response was a bit too powerful for this to be sustainable. I
soon found my Pavlovian response kicking in every time I would leave the
house for anything. Out for a grocery run? Hmm isn't there a donut shop
a bit further down the road? Chatting with a friend on a walk? Oh, might
as well grab some fro-yo.
In an attempt to justify my behavior, I propose a thought experiment:
Who is likely to live a "healthier" life? The man doing regular, intense
exercise and crushing two scoops of ice cream and a decadent donut every
day? Or the man living a relaxed life, never exceeding 60 bpm heart
rate, with not a gram of sugar in his body? Let my tombstone show that I
undertook these endeavors with all the gravitas associated with such a
scientific endeavor, for who could argue that there were any other
options left to take?
How easy it is to forget the pains that come along with trying to DIY
Just when I thought I'd started to wrap my head around some of the finer
points of configuring Vim just the way I like it, I was hit with a
painful roadblock. While trying to write a Python script, I noticed that
despite the syntax highlighting working as expected, nothing I do could
get the indentation right. Unfortunately indentation is far from
superficial in Python meaning I would have to install some new plugin to
autoformat things and fix whatever was broken — not exactly how I
wanted to spend my Sunday.
Flash forward two hours later and it turns out all of this fuss was due
to a buggy if statement in my .vimrc, bleh. Did I learn
some new things? Yes, I suppose I now have a better appreciation for how
Vim handles filetypes and indentation. But the real lesson here was one
high school teachers tried to hammer home a long time ago, don't copy
random (.vimrc) files from the interwebs without knowing what they're
doing. A reminder for future me that it's better to focus on
understanding the basics instead of FOMOing about the fancy stuff.
We take it for granted that our ability to see colors and hear pitch
make our lives richer. We would lament the loss of our ability to see
the color green or our ability to hear a clear C; trees would lose their
majesty and songs their beat. Yet we willingly deny ourselves the
opportunity to cry. "Men don't cry" the saying goes and with it goes a
corresponding richness of experience.
For the majority of my adolescence, I cried only in the most extreme
situations of stress. In my suburban upbringing, this was fortunately
tantamount to girl troubles and feelings of loneliness. After my
freshman year in university, my zone of tears started to expand to the
occasional movie. If you don't shed a tear at Robin Williams's
recollection of holding his dying friend on the battlefield and watching
his wife wither away from cancer in Good Will Hunting, you are
some kind of monster. While small, this departure from crying from
personal stress to crying for something beyond me
felt different, like something new had been unlocked. While I
would experience these empathic tears more fully on some subsequent MDMA
trips, I still could not shake the embarrassment that followed every
episode, that I had transgressed some tenet of manhood.
That changed almost overnight after my unexpected
empathy training. I found myself brought to tears by the book I was reading at the
time, Flowers for Algernon. I didn't make anything of it at the
time, if you didn't cry reading the last few journal entries, you are
some kind of monster. But then it happened again with another book. And
another one. And then by a new song I had listened to. And then again...
Now keep in mind that this was not some sort of mental breakdown where I
was crying everyday but this certainly felt like a departure from the
handful of times I had cried in the past decade.
I didn't feel any weaker than before. Emotionally speaking, I felt more
secure than I ever had in the past. No longer was crying a source of
embarrassment or shame, but just a natural expression of really
connecting with something — I was seeing a new color to which I
was previously blind. Of course my old purposes were still served, I
would go on to cry plenty about my upcoming girl troubles. But now I
would also cry for troubles never faced: wars never experienced, loved
ones not yet lost, valuable friendships still standing. What a color
If you're reading this and you're skeptical, I hear you. This is
admittedly somewhat beyond the pale. But I would encourage you to think
about the things in your life and reflect on their value. Consider that
your next meal will be the last one you ever eat. Or that time hanging
out with your friend will be the last time you see him. Or that last
goodbye you said to a loving parent will truly be the last. Reflect that
as far fetched as these may seem, one day they will all be true. If it
is okay to shed tears to mourn their loss tomorrow, then it must be okay
to shed tears to celebrate their existence today.
Looking back, this question has had many different answers at many
different times in my life. While most people will state with absolute
certainty their current reason for learning history, there is often far
more nuance. And with the constant battles to propagandize school
curriculums one way or another, it's worth being clear on what the goal
My earliest recollection of learning history is in fifth grade. We
covered ancient civilizations (i.e. Egypt) before spending the rest of
the time on the Middle Ages in Europe. The purpose was to get a sense of
how human beings, just like me, had for many many years lived vastly
different lives; going so far as to dress up and roleplay different
characters in a medieval banquet (I was a nobleman of course). This
broader cultural awareness can be powerful and is often a discount
version of the benefits of traveling as a child.
After that began the long arc of Canadian history. Starting with
voyageurs and the fight for Canadian independence in grade school,
taking a weird detour into residential schools in early high school, and
culminating in Canada's involvement in the World Wars and the
definitely-pivotal-and-totally-earth-shattering Battle of Vimy Ridge. In
hindsight, I realize that this whole curriculum was designed to build up
a national identity in teenagers starting to discover themselves, to
really instill a sense of Canadian pride with values such as humility
and courage. History became a tool to impress upon me the values of the
society I was growing up in; an empowering experience if done right and
a catalyst for bitter conflict if done wrong.
Throughout this period, my contemporary self never really questioned the
value of learning history. The reason was clear: learning history, like
keeping up with current events, was the entry ticket to the
intelligentsia. It was a way to feel superior and knowledgeable.
History, news, and politics were the trifecta for qualifying as a
learned adult. While that reason didn't last, it did at least serve as
an entry ticket to a seat on our school's Reach for the Top team,
catapulting me to instant fame and generating unbounded sex appeal.
After high school, upon realizing that there were armies of people more
knowledgeable than me, I was left to fill my panicked insecurity through
other intellectual flexes. And thus, my relationship with history
changed again. The little history I would come across was purely for
entertainment. As true crime has proven over the past couple of decades,
historical events can capture the human psyche more completely than even
the best Agatha Christie novel. In such a way did history, in the form
of The 300 Spartans or the drama of the Middle East, persist in the
peripheries of college life.
A few years later I crossed the final threshold of human awakening:
paying taxes. History then became a powerful tool to backtest different
systems of governance and life. A way to try and answer why Canada had
adopted certain social systems while the US had adopted others. And
while we should be cautious about trying to extrapolate the benefits of
shogunates in 21st century California, learning history does help glean
potential consequences of communism or fascism.
I realize now that there is no best reason for why we should learn
history. I urge you to pause and reflect on why you think it's valuable.
And what part of that value you want to pass onto children, keeping in
mind that curriculums are zero-sum. Are we trying to teach different
perspectives or are we indoctrinating? History repeats itself, but we
should be careful about what we want to repeat.
As my blog posts continue, I realize that having every single post in
its entirety on on page will not scale. It's difficult to read through
earlier posts, there are no previous or next links. There are no tags to
organize for the different topics. Fixing any of these problems poses a
non-trivial challenge considering my static site generator is composed
of a single bash script. And yet, in spite of (or perhaps because of)
that jankiness, I love my site.
There is something special about simplicity and understanding. While I
could have easily solved all those problems with a WordPress site, I
would have lost all the pain and struggle that came with figuring out
how to add a simple link to my nav bar. I would have lost the joy that
comes with cooking your own meal, building your own computer, or even
changing your own oil. It doesn't matter how simple or mundane the task
is, it matters that you are closer to mastery in some small domain. With
every big push in tech to outsource everything, from couriers to deliver
food to personal assistants to answer emails, we get further from this
general mastery. Further from the master-of-all-trades Renaissance man
of old that we idealize.
Refuse the conveniences, take a peek under the hood, and focus on the
bare minimum that you care about, and tackle it from first
principles. This is how to find flow, this is how to gain mastery.
As things scale, I'm sure I'll learn why using two text files for a
database is not a good idea. Or why hardcoding html snippets in a bash
file is bad practice. I look forward to it. But until then, please enjoy
my janky site in all its leanness and "charm" in the same way you'd
enjoy a friend's first attempt at cooking for you in college. Every
great chef starts somewhere.
Last night I dreamt I was in a competition to build large scale art
exhibits. As with all dreams, I have no idea how I got there, I
certainly am not a top pick for such an exercise. Fortunately for me, my
team seemed completely unfazed by my ineptitude and methodically built
up a wondrous room-sized display of wood and metal. Sheets of metal were
punched out and cut down to resemble ivy and the wood gave a sense of
all of this simply being a part of nature. As with all dreams, I cannot
quite put into words the details. What I remember clearly is a sense of
awe at the whole thing. Somehow these people envisioned and built this
wondrous structure, a feat beyond me in my wildest dreams!... Oh wait.
Wasn't this exactly within my imagination? While writing this, I can
humbly tell you that I have no idea how I'd begin to replicate the
endeavor. Yet, wasn't it my own mind that effortlessly created and
constructed, however impossibly, the whole thing? How bizarre this sense
of creativity is. And how subconciously it occurs. Our brains
paradoxically create the impossible while disbelieving its ability to
create. Are we really of two (or more) minds as some research shows? Or
is this all part of some cohesive singular experience? My conclusion:
dreams are weird man.
On a podcast some years ago, I came across a simple yet powerful litmus
test to decide which side of a complicated conflict lines up with my
personal values. Imagine if one side had complete and total power, what
are they saying they'd do with that power? If the answer
appalls you, problem solved.
Obviously, things are not always so simple. A party may outwardly state
one objective but secretly have another. But, at least in the case of
international conflict, you'll be surprised at how often a group's
publicly stated mission goes completely against your beliefs.
On my site's reading list I decided for the
absolutely minimal amount of classification possible to avoid the mess
of having to rank books or cateogorize adding them in, landing on a
simple fiction vs nonfiction. I've been satisfied by my choice up until
a conversation about the book I was to read next, "You're reading the
Bible? Would that classify as fiction or nonfiction?"
Like with any good tough, potentially philosophical question, I
immediately looked to the Internet for an answer. I read one Quora
answer and thought I'd be satisfied.
"The bible is nonfiction as in 'not fiction'. Fiction refers to a novel
or collection of short stories."
Case closed, or so I thought. Had I stopped there, perhaps it would have
been. But my eyes went to the next answer.
"It depends on who you ask. Some people pay call it fiction and others
nonfiction, and others neither at all."
Each successive answer confused me more. I was honestly expecting the
typical Internet two-sided shouting match. But instead, I found a
More digging and more confusion. It seems like I was not going to find a
clear answer here. There seemed to be a general consensus that my
perfect binary taxonomy was not sufficient. So how to solve this problem
of where to add the Bible while still keeping the minimalist effort I
desired? Simple. Remove all classification. So whenever I finally get
through that behemoth of a book, gone will be the old class system, all
books will unite as one. But while all books will be equal, some books
may be more equal than others. Stay tuned.
With every achievement accomplished, your brain rushes with another
high. An intense, gratifying inward cry of "I'm good enough." And
then... it's gone. The next moment is upon you and unconsciously you
have already scanned for the next empty box to check off. The next one
will be the one that lasts you assure yourself, starring the empty box.
Or the one after that — another star. You glance back at the
tapestry of thousands of checked off boxes behind you and hesitate
slightly. Within squinting distance you notice dozens of roughly
pencilled stars, the handiwork of your past self.
Years later, your brain quietly hums with contentment. You feel an itch,
hear someone shouting something obscene, but your brain hums on. You
have learned how to find peace by looking inward, and relishing the
beauty of the world around you. You focus for the next twenty minutes on
the busy soundscape and a thought drifts into your head: there was some
greatness you had wanted wanted to achieve, perhaps now is the time. You
are calmly confident in your ability to accomplish it. You let that
thought sit with you for a few moments until it passes and another
replaces it: to what end? You have found love, found peace. A warm
summer breeze passes, and with it so do your thoughts of greatness.
Ambition and equanimity lie in subtle yet inescapable tension. Most have
no grip on the latter. Some try and hold onto both. None succeed. Which
path do you choose?
I was recently discussing the place of politics in the workforce with a
friend and former colleague. In explaining the importance of pushing
anti-racism initiatives at work, he stated,
"If you're not a part of the solution, then you're a part of the
I understood the sentiment, one heard frequently in the last year. I
empathized with why he felt banning political activism was such a
harmful policy and we moved on. But this left me wondering... Is this
true? Are we morally culpable for the wrongs around us? This should,
after all, have a great impact on our behavior and self-worth.
If we were to grant this as true, this would lead to some truly
horrifying conclusions about our own lives. Around the world there are
millions of people dying and suffering from easily preventable diseases.
Diseases like measles which have been all but forgotten in North America
still kill hundreds of children. How many of those deaths are on our
hands? How many of the homeless that we walk by everyday do we take
On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children
sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather's
cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a
child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is
a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to
stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or
babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep
her head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you
don't wade in and pull her out, she seems likely to drown. Wading in is
easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few
days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the
child over to someone responsible for her, and change your clothes,
you'll be late for work. What should you do?
Well?... The argument is powerful in the almost rhetorical question
posed at the end. Singer states that by choosing not to donate or work
on this problem, we are choosing to walk past the drowning child. Taking
this line of reasong to its conclusion, every dollar spent in excess of
a spartan life is a choice to walk past this child. Aware of this and
true to form, Singer has pledged to donate all of his income above
something like a $15k salary. And yet, even Singer does not assign
culpability by omission.
The guilt by omission rhetoric is wielded at the breaking of every big
news story. By flocking around today's solution, the wielders, by their
own accord, become a part of yesterday's problem. Singer's point is that
we ought to make a change, not because we're culpable, but
because we can. Instead of assigning guilt or complicity unto
others, we should consider how effectively we can make a
difference. And given our limited resources, especially our
we should strive to make the most of them. Real change, like investing,
requires long-term compounding. Focusing on the latest cause is as
likely to help society as investing in the latest meme coin is likely to
make us rich. Focus on finding what is impactful and what is effective,
and like Singer put your money where your mouth is.
Some things in life are so commonplace and mundane that we never stop to
question them. Only when you see things done another, perhaps
contradictory, way you're left wondering why you never questioned it in
the first place. Like the first time learning that some countries drive
on the opposite side of the road. Or when you met someone certain they
don't want children. I recently had this existential crisis with
In Apr. 2021, the cofounders of Basecamp faced intense backlash for
changes that included a ban on societal and political discussions on
company account. While this is worth opining on (see thoughts
was the overshadowed second change that really caught me off guard.
2. No more paternalistic benefits. For years we've
offered a fitness benefit, a wellness allowance, a farmer's market
share, and continuing education allowances. They felt good at the time,
but we've had a change of heart. It's none of our business what you do
outside of work, and it's not Basecamp's place to encourage certain
behaviors — regardless of good intention. By providing funds for
certain things, we're getting too deep into nudging people's personal,
This concept of providing taxable non-cash benefits has been around for
a while but the psychology of it was formalized by Richard Thaler and
Cass Sunstein, and published in their book Nudge. Along with
the rationale was coined the term "libertarian paternalism", a term
meant to evoke images of a loving father raising a free-thinking child
under his wise and knowing tutelage. But stated directly, the philosophy
dictates that institutions should exert their will through subtle
psychologial manipulation, while still leaving us free to overcome them.
This to me is the Nobel Prize-winning version of passive-aggressiveness.
Your libertarian paternalistic roommates aren't forcing you to
do the dishes but they might stop mentioning which one of them did the
dishes last week if you do.
Universally, these paternalistic workplace benefits are
well-intentioned. Stripe initially had an unlimited vacation policy but,
like other employers, found that employees were still getting burnt out
and not taking enough vacation. The solution? Re-implement accruals and
caps. This was clearly a thought-out move to benefit employees, by using
loss aversion to overpower cultural and self-imposed stigmas around
taking "too much" vacation. And recently, this was ramped up through
additional days that had to be used within the next 3 or 6 months or
lost forever. These nudges, the employer equivalent of "Limited time
only!" sales tactics, are based on the assumption that employers know
what's better for us than we do. The focus could have been to send
communications to reduce stigma and empower employees, with management
leading by example. But instead, employers choose the lazier nudging
The unsettling aspect is that, while well-intentioned, benefits are used
in ways that are the least likely to be questioned as opposed to what is
truly best for us. The biggest example is the frequent availability of
alcohol as a benefit. If employers really wanted the healthiest outcome
for employees, they could simply state that the company would only be
expensing non-alcoholic drinks. Or better yet, prevent sending messages
for non-mission critical employees between 10:00 pm – 6:00 am to
encourage sleeping well. While objectively healthier, nudges like these
would be far too overt to be palatable by employees. The watchful
paternalistic hand must avoid raising suspicion.
Weirdly though, even hyper-analytical people seem to enjoy these
paternalistic benefits instead of demanding that they be paid out. I
think this highlights the depth of our mental accounting bias, the
tendency for us to not view money as fungible. We view a $1000 education
benefit as a huge improvement over a $0 education benefit but a view a
$1000 raise as insultingly low on a $100k salary. This presents
employers an arbitrage opportunity: boosting employee satisfaction by
reapportioning compensation to smaller benefits instead of increasing
total compensation. But aside from situations with bulk purchasing
benefits such as health insurance, I'd always rather have the cash to
make my own choices. Benefits are not some free lunch but rather chunks
of your compensation that have been locked up to be released with good
behavior. The paternal hand will only give us our allowance if we spend
it "the right way".
This whole system leads to some weird conclusions: Does your employer
offer a stop-smoking benefit? Smoking employees get paid more. How about
a gym benefit? Fitter employees get paid more. Retirement account
matching? Scrupulous employees get paid more. Compensation starts
getting linked to completely extrinsic behaviors but the ubiquity and
positive framing of these benefits lead us to never give pause. As Gerd
Gigerenzer calls out in his paper
The Bias Bias in Behavioral Economics, a focus on maximizing
autonomy and education are the long-term solutions to better outcomes.
If we are able to learn from their mistakes and decide what is best for
ourselves, then why do we let our employer guide our lifestyle outside
of work? Next time your employer starts listing off their benefits, ask
whether you can take them in cash. After all, who knows what's best for
Not comingling with the other sex. It's the 21st century, you're not a
bigot/misogynist/sexist. Definitely an anti-value.
Being homophobic. Still living in the 21st century, you're not a
bigot/homophobe. You're maybe not really totally 110%
comfortable with it but let's not dwell on that. Probably an
Wearing recommended clothing. "Woah, are you backwards or repressed?"
Maybe an anti-value.
Not watching porn or masturbating. Nobody has ever talked about this
out loud so maybe it's not even technically illegal. Let's say
decriminalized if it's less than twice a day. You're secretly hopeful
that incognito mode protects you from employers and omnipotent beings.
Understanding the Qu'ran. You've read the whole Qu'ran, maybe even
more than once. Of course, to keep its integrity, you read it in
Arabic. Unfortunately, you don't speak a word of Arabic and reading it
in English never occurred to you.
Reading the Qu'ran. See above.
Praying. Recommended but optional. Kind of like the extra non-graded
assignments your teachers recommended; yeah you should be doing them
but nobody else is doing them and you'll probably still pass.
Giving zakat. You'll definitely do this when you have the money,
that's just not yet. And you're pretty sure your dad's still paying
for your entry on the holy ledger so you're probably fine.
Not having sex before marriage. What does this even really mean?
Anything but PIV is fine, right? Maybe you've crossed that line too
but what does it really matter if you're planning on getting
married to this person? And even if you're not planning on marrying
this person, what does it really matter if you're planning on getting
married to some person at some point?
Not drinking or taking drugs. You're not really gonna try to justify
this one but hey, nobody's perfect. People need to loosen up a little.
Maybe this is only for special occasions... Which occur two to four
times a week.
Observing Ramadan. Super important time to make up for all your other
slippages. Double down here and you buy yourself another year of
mistakes, right? But exceptions are required. An actual quote from the
past week, "I know it's Ramadan but I'm still definitely down for
tomorrow night. I have been needing to get fucked up."
Not eating pork. The most sacred aspect of faith, never to be
questioned and never to be broken. This is your hill to die on. Having
beers with your friends and they're about to order pepperoni pizza? "I
can't, I'm Muslim."
Don't take this too seriously in case I got your order wrong. Just some
funny observations from decades spent growing up around people trying to
reconcile identity, faith, and life in North America.
I wake up and grab my phone—it's 7:30 a.m., Friday. I feel a
little groggy, definitely went to bed a little too late last night in a
YouTube blackhole about homes I will never be able to afford. Oops. I
really don't feel like working today but at least the weekend is almost
I quickly check up on my messages: a brief skim through texts,
Messenger, Instagram, Signal, and WhatsApp. I'm a little disappointed, I
for some reason expected—hoped for more. I don't have time to
respond to what's there but fire off a few quick reactjis to the best
ones. I'll get to it later.
Up next, email inboxes. It's too early for work emails though. Nothing
but the usual junk, some spammy newsletters, bank updates, and sales
codes I was expecting. I'll save the news articles for later, not really
feeling it right now. I really should get around to unsubscribing from
these one of these days... Select all, delete. Back to inbox zero,
already starting the day with some progress.
I really should get out of bed but let's just quickly check-in on my
favorite subreddits. LOL couple good posts. Quick check of the homepage.
LOL the internet is amazing. Nothing great past page 3 though, the
upvotes got it right. A quicker tour through Instagram, tossing a single
heart, I see that there's nothing great.
Shit, time to actually get up. Tune into my favorite podcast while I get
ready for the day and check up those news articles in my inbox. Shit is
crazy these days, I can't believe this is where we're at. Hop back into
my audiobook while I start brewing coffee. God, that smells good. I
didn't realize my head was aching but it's already dying down before the
coffee is ready.
Pop open my meditation app for a quick session to start the day off.
Much better. Halfway through the cup and I'm feeling human again. Time
to hop onto the first Zoom call of the day: "Hey team!"
Glad that's over with. Ugh let's check in on the work emails... "53 new
messages". Great. I'll just check Slack first before really digging
through this. Agh, a few requests I missed last night. Let me just do
them right now before I forget. Done. And I'll mark everything else as
unread so I don't forget to come back to it later (I hope). Time to
tackle that inbox again. 45 minutes later and done. Back to inbox zero.
Do I really need to work the rest of the day? This seems like a lot for
Jk, I wish. Now it's time to actually get some stuff done. My morning
podcast won't do, this is going to require my work playlist on Spotify.
Plugged back into the headphones aaaaand we're off. I drop back
into the messaging apps a few times when I have a second to write out my
responses and see what friends have to say. Respond to a couple more
pings as well and hop into another call. I cannot seem to focus, TGIF.
Finally lunch time. Pop open last night's UberEats into the microwave
while browsing YouTube for something to watch and checking up my
messages. Gotta find something "educational" of course, it's still work
hours. New episode of Last Week Tonight? Sweet. Food is ready, and we're
good to go. Go through a couple more episodes while I'm putting in the
dishes. Shit, next call is in a few minutes. 2x through the rest of the
video and just squeeze into the call. Nailed it.
I quickly check up on my messages again after the call, no responses
though. Back to the playlist to hammer out the rest of the afternoon.
TGIF! Did I say that already? Don't have much planned (thanks #COVID)
but relieved nontheless. I'll go out for a quick walk and workout.
Should I tune back in the podcast? Queue up my workout playlist? Or
maybe call someone? Nah, too tired for a call. Let's go with the
podcast. I'll hit the playlist when I start the workout.
Back to cook up some dinner. Quickly 2x through the recipe video again
just to make sure I'm not forgetting anything and turn on a couple funny
videos in the meantime. Food is ready, can't wait to enjoy it. But what
do I watch with dinner? I know, I'll catch up on that latest Netflix
Work finished. Workout completed. Dinner cooked. Sucks that I can't hang
out with friends (#COVID) but at least I have some time to finally
unwind and decompress. What to watch? Don't have the energy for a movie
or something heavy. I turn to my current comedy pick, satirical and
topical, just what I need. Hit play, grab my phone, and catch up with
friends in the meantime.
It's getting late, time to start getting ready for bed. Plug back into
my audiobook while going through the nightly routine. At least not going
out means I can catch up on sleep. I get into bed but I'm not
quite asleep yet so I just quickly catch up on messages again.
Nothing else good on Reddit or Insta. I'll just take a quick peek at
TikTok before passing out. LOL the internet is amazing. Did I say that
already? It's 1:00 am!? Fuck. Not again.
We drown ourselves in stimulation, deeply uncomfortable and evasive of
the most fleeting moments of boredom. And yet we say we are not
addicted, there is no problem. Try eating your next meal devoid of any
sort of tech, enjoy it slowly and deliberately, maybe over 20 minutes.
Why is it so hard to savor a moment like this? Why do we want more? Are
we not addicted?
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 far from unanimous. And I'm confident that these public sharing
sessions would not be so well-received if they centered on right-wing
views, 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, as is the case in public work channels. 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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 time 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
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.
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.
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
pulling; a 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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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? ☑ Lines? ☑ Squares? ☐ Absolute?
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? ☑ Lines? ☐ Squares? ☑ Absolute?
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?