Beware False Dichotomies

Which of these two arguments do you find more persuasive?

  1. ISIS is a religious phenomenon, and Islam is to blame for its existence. ISIS follows the doctrines of Islam and takes them literally – for example, the doctrines of (1) statelessness (2) treatment of apostates / those who don’t believe in Islam (3) the religious obligation to obey an Islamic caliphate, and so on. (Sample Koranic verses that justify ISIS’s brutality include: “they [should] be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land” (Quran 5:33); “When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly.”)
  2. ISIS is a political phenomenon, and arises because of political & historical conditions in the region. For example, ISIS wouldn’t have arisen if it weren’t for the US invasion of Iraq, which caused a civil war and sowed division between Sunnis and Shias that didn’t previously exist. Similarly, the US legacy of funding jihadists against the Soviets in the late 70s & early 80s along with numerous war victims in Libya, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria created the conditions for the formation of ISIS & similar groups. The fact that they’re Muslim isn’t important; if those regions had been Christian, you’d have seen them justify their actions using Christian doctrines instead.

Argument #1 is popular with hawks & right-wingers; if someone makes argument #1, they probably supported the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, and they may be more likely to vote Republican. Argument #2 is popular with ‘liberals’, leftists, and Western Muslims who see ISIS as as both evil and unrepresentative of the Islam that they follow. For example, Obama said in a recent speech that “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam”.

You would have to be wilfully blind to believe that ISIS has literally nothing to do with Islam – just watch a few videos of the leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who justifies everything that ISIS does with references to the Koran and Islamic doctrine. (This excellent Atlantic article contains more). And yet, it’s also obviously true that ISIS wouldn’t arise in a country like the UK, however many Muslims there are. So clearly ISIS arose because of certain political & historical conditions in the region.

So why can’t both arguments be correct?

In my experience, the ability to see beyond false dichotomies like these is a characteristic of the smartest people. Most people automatically fall on one side or another, and you could predict people’s beliefs from their socioeconomic groups with high accuracy (literally all of my Western Muslim friends would make argument #2, for example, and deny argument #1.)

This strongly suggests that both ‘sides’ have identity-based motivations for their beliefs. The Western Muslims, for example, will reason along the lines of: “I’m a Muslim, and I don’t believe in violence. ISIS believe in violence, therefore they aren’t real Muslims.” They’ll therefore ignore the plentiful evidence that ISIS take the Koran, and Islam seriously & literally. Conversely, people who only blame Islam for ISIS, and ignore the shameful history of US intervention in the region, are either motivated by a misguided contrarianism, subconscious bigotry against Muslims, or just don’t know about the politics/history of the region. 

Very few people can see that both arguments could actually be correct – you don’t have to choose between them.

Similarly, all of the pairs of statements below can both be true, but people who believe both of them are rare. (NB. I don’t necessarily endorse all of these):

  • Capitalism is the greatest wealth-generating system in human history AND capitalism has undesirable side effects e.g. environmental damage, labour abuse, etc.
  • Racial profiling at airports is unpleasant and causes alienation AND under certain conditions, racial profiling is the rational thing to do if you’re a government trying to stop terrorist attacks

…and so on. This causes fuzzy thinking, idiotic Twitter wars and the constant left-right, hawk-dove battle that seems to be the lot of political discourse everywhere.

Beware false dichotomies.

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2014 Review of Books

Several people I know have asked me for book recommendations recently. Since I track every book I read, I thought people might find this end-of-year review useful. The format is inspired by the late Aaron Swartz’s series. Following his convention, I’ve *bold starred books that I thought were especially great; **two stars means it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Obvious themes: tech, thrillers, Zen. More novels than I thought I’d read. Surprisingly little philosophy or economics – I suspect I get most of this from the internet rather than books now. Overall I got through less than usual this year, but I’m aiming to get to ~60 over the holidays.

1. How Google Works by Eric Schmidt

Bad. Full of woolly platitudes. Apparently now everybody needs to hire ‘smart creatives’ who adapt fast and can learn new things. This is because the pace of change is increasing in the world. Does this surprise anyone?

2. One Way and Another by Adam Phillips

Essays on psychoanalysis and life. Rambling but inspired. I bought this after reading his Paris Review interview, which is excellent.

3. Ending the Pursuit of Happiness by Barry Magid

I liked this as an intro to Zen and as a great perspective on happiness. Worth reading if you want to be a mentally healthy person, or if you suspect there’s something to the view that talk of ‘achieving happiness’ is somehow misguided.

4. The Interior Realisation by Hubert Benoit

Not as good as #39, which is amazing.

5. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

Marc Andreessen recommends this book to would-be entrepreneurs. A light read but inspiring – years and years of plugging away at comedy before getting any kind of ‘break’, and the famous quote: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

*6. On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

We habitually underestimate the value of time and tend to spend a lot of our life on stuff that doesn’t really matter. Seneca makes this point in a particularly brilliant and vivid way. It’s really short, too.

7. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I really liked this one. Great thriller. Not revealing any spoilers (there is a shocker of a twist). I thought the ending was pretty silly and psychologically unrealistic.

8. The Constant Gardener by John le Carre

Good thriller & typically well-plotted le Carre novel with a moral centre. I find reading le Carre novels oddly peaceful and immersive.

9. Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Worth reading if you work in tech. Like the Blake Masters lectures online but with maybe 20% additional content. I particularly liked the analysis of Tesla at the end.

10. Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

Surprisingly brilliant. Surfaced a lot of latent feelings/thoughts I had about photography. You have to make allowances for the style (continental philosopher, somewhat pretentious) but it was very good and in parts moving. (It was written after the death of his mother).

11. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami

Solid Murakami. Nothing spectacular, but a good novel nonetheless. One or two profound passages.

*12. Summertime by J. M. Coetzee

Brilliant novel. Really odd – the idea is that a biographer interviews five people about a man called ‘John Coetzee’ (the name of the author) – the book is a transcript of these interviews. Each person has their own perspective on John, and a hilarious and very realistic voice. They are describing recognisably the same man, and there’s something incredible about how much self-awareness and ability to imagine yourself into other peoples’ souls it takes to write this kind of book.

*13. Where I’m Calling From: Stories by Raymond Carver

One of my favourite short story writers. If you haven’t read him, try ‘Cathedral’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’.

14. Stoner, John Williams

A novel about a university professor, from birth to death. One of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. Not good enough to make it worthwhile.

15. Artful, Ali Smith

*16. On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche

I read this after Glenn Greenwald said it was his favourite book. If you get past the semi-historical narratives Nietzsche tells, the concepts are brilliant and disturbing. I’ve never read anyone who can stimulate my own thoughts so much.

17. Call for the Dead by John Le Carre

Solid spy novel. A little archaic.

*18. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

One of the best novels I read this year. It’s going to endure. One of those big, epic novels that draws you into its world. Describes being a young boy, falling in love, and losing one’s mother scarily well.

19. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Only worth reading if you’re at the intersection of ‘Murakami fan’ and ‘runner’.

20. A Delicate Truth by John Le Carre

Above-average Le Carre. More recent. Good read if you want a first spy novel.

21. Only the Paranoid Survive by Andy Grove

Pretty excellent memoir. Particularly insightful on how to stay alive as a technology company and has great specific tips on spotting the right kind of large-scale strategic decision. Grove is one of tech’s greatest ever CEO’s (“During his tenure as CEO, Grove oversaw a 4,500% increase in Intel’s market capitalization from $4 billion to $197 billion, making it the world’s 7th largest company, with 64,000 employees.” – Wikipedia) so this is how I know he isn’t bullshitting. I would go back to this if I became the CEO of a large tech company, but since I’m not in that position, I haven’t starred this one.

**22. More Than Anyone Can Do: Zen Talks by Ton Lathouwers

Nine talks given at a Zen retreat, all extremely profound. I would read this if you’re interested in Zen and/or have any kind of interest in religion.

23. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Good read if you’re an artist/writer or have aspirations in that direction.

24. Collected Stories by Raymond Carver

25. No Place To Hide by Glenn Greenwald

I read everything Greenwald writes and consider him one of the most important journalists of our time. This book is the story of the Snowden leaks from the journalist who broke them as well as an eloquent argument for why citizens should care about being in an era of mass surveillance. Even if you don’t agree with him, it’s useful to get the perspective.

**26. The Nature of Order Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life by Christopher Alexander
**27. The Nature of Order Book 4: The Luminous Ground by Christopher Alexander

A theory of beauty and aesthetics. Programmers may be familiar with Alexander from ‘A Pattern Language’, which helped develop the concept of design patterns in software. The books are stunning physical objects (I don’t normally buy books for this reason, but I was stunned at everything from the type to the photos) and they had a huge impact on me. I would read the Wikipedia page and if it sounds interesting, just order them and take a look.

28. I’m Feeling Lucky by Douglas Edwards

*29. Masters of Doom by David Kushner

Excellent biography of Carmack & Romero and id Software. I got this from Jeff Atwood’s article. Worth reading just for the descriptions of Carmack’s brilliance alone. And quotes like this: “In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there,” [Carmack] said. “The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.”

30. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

I didn’t love this – it felt too specific to Ben’s situation, and the more general advice was largely a duplicate of what’s on his blog already. So if you’ve read his blog, I wouldn’t strongly recommend this.

**31. A Death In The Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard
**32. A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Fairly sure these will sit alongside Proust & Tolstoy as some of the greatest novels ever written. Sold half a million copies in Norway, a country of 6 million people, and supposedly was banned from discussion at workplaces because people were talking about it too much. A good article is here for background but basically, if you’re into novels, I would read these.

33. Essays in Idleness by Kenko

*34. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
*35. The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
*36. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Surprisingly brilliant thrillers with a feminist theme. I read all three on a single flight and could not stop reading the whole way through, but these novels also stuck with me in a way that most thrillers don’t.

37. Letters to a Young Novelist by Federico Garcia Lorca

38. Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Classic, excellent thriller, and great read if you’re not into the genre but want an intelligent page-turner.

**39. Zen and the Psychology of Transformation by Hubert Benoit

Dense but extremely profound, one of the wisest books I’ve read. Benoit was a psychotherapist who became fully paralysed after being injured in WWII and spent several years lying still in bed trying to figure out the nature of life. This book is what he came up with. It’s like Zen explained why a Western philosopher. This book is only worth undertaking if you (a) have an interest in Zen already and (b) have a tolerance for dense, academic prose. I think it’s worth it.

40. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Nice introduction to Zen. Immensely readable like all Alan Watts.

41. Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh

Pretty good memoir and contains some great stories. Maybe I read too much tech press, but a little sick of hearing about how great Zappos’s company culture was. It sounds cultish and creepy to me (how enthusiastic could somebody get about selling shoes before you wonder if they’re deluding themselves? Maybe that’s just me). Still, Hsieh is an extraordinary entrepreneur and clearly super-intelligent, so this is a good read.

42. Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

Forgettable.

43. After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Good, short read. I liked this and found it memorable.

*44. High Output Management by Andy Grove

The best book on management I’ve read. (Though there are surprisingly few good ones, given how important a subject this is).

*45. Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross

If you’re in SaaS (particularly as a founder or sales manager), you must read this. It’s the most actionable book on either of those subjects I’ve read.

*46. The Power Broker by Robert Moses [in progress]

Already one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read. I recommend reading Aaron Swartz on this as it was one of his favourite books.

47. Nothing is Hidden by Barry Magid [in progress]

48. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman [in progress]

Overrated and a little wordy so far. Still, I’m reading it and intrigued to know what happens, so he’s doing something right.

49. Player of Games, Iain Banks [in progress]

50. Permutation City, Greg Egan [in progress]

51. Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber [in progress]

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Cryonics

NB. I wrote this to be provocative; I don’t think the argument is watertight, as evidenced by the fact that I haven’t actually signed up for cryonics.

Cryonics means freezing someone when they die, so they can be revived with better medical technology in the future.

Another way of saying this is that cryonicists disagree with the legal definition of death. Someone is not dead when their heart has stopped beating, for example. Rather, they are dead when it is impossible – even in principle – to revive someone in their current form. This is known as the ‘information-theoretic criterion of death‘.1 You cannot rearrange a pile of bones into the person they once were, but you can, in principle, revive someone whose heart stopped beating two minutes ago.

Cryonics seems like an obviously good bet. If you don’t sign up to it, you are certainly dead, whether or not cryonics works. If you sign up for cryonics, there are two possibilities: either cryonics doesn’t work, in which case you die, but that would’ve happened if you didn’t sign up to it anyway. Or cryonics does work, then you live. So the only way you could live beyond your natural lifespan is if you sign up to cryonics: by not signing up for it, you are guaranteed permanent death. If you value life, the only rational course of action, therefore, is to sign up to cryonics.

If the above is correct, it is rational to not sign up for cryonics only if:

  1. You believe that P = 0, i.e. cryonics will never work;
  2. You prefer being dead to being alive.

Cryonics will probably work

Freezing biological matter to preserve it (so that when rewarmed, it functions again) has worked already, in smaller cases. It has worked with a rabbit kidney2, which was frozen, rewarmed, transplanted into a new rabbit and functioned normally. It has also worked with, according to Ralph Merkle, “very early human embryos, sperm, skin, bone, red and white blood cells, bone marrow, and others”. There are also well-known cases where people who have been dead for a long period of time were revived, e.g. because they fell into a frozen lake.3 This implies that cryonic freezing has a prima facie chance of working.

Nonetheless, if you talk to the average person – even doctors – about cryonics, they are sceptical. The most common reason for doctors to be sceptical is that cryonics hasn’t been validated using clinical trials, and doctors are, rightly, sceptical of things that haven’t been validated in that way. But cryonics requires a longer time horizon than most clinical trials. We won’t know whether it works for at least 50 years.

We are faced with a bet: will medical technologies in the future will become advanced enough to repair damage to human bodies that we don’t currently know how to deal with? And will cryopreservation keep us in a treatable state until then?

I don’t know of an exact value for P, the probability that cryonics works, but we can confidently state that it’s non-zero. Highly intelligent people are choosing to be cryonically preserved, freezing seems prima facie a good way to preserve people, and medical technology is advancing fast at an accelerating rate.

We should value life

Preferring death to life seems absurd, but it is the source of most people’s distaste for cryonics. People say things like:

  • Death is part of the natural order. It’s a good thing. We shouldn’t fight it.4
  • Life wouldn’t be beautiful if we lived forever. Death makes things beautiful.
  • Living forever would suck: you’d get old, and demented, and weak, but have to go on living in this miserable state.

The third point seems like the most reasonable one. It’d be no fun to be alive and decrepit, because you couldn’t enjoy anything. I’m not worried about this, though: if medical science becomes advanced enough to revive frozen humans, it’s likely good enough to reverse the bad effects of aging too. And if it isn’t, we should remain frozen until it is.

More generally, I find the pro-death arguments baffling. If people really believed that death was good, they wouldn’t cry at funerals, or be sad when their friends died. Nobody wants their family and friends to die. All the cliches about death making life beautiful are just advanced rationalisations for something that’s awful, and bad, and should be stopped.

Paying for a cryonic insurance policy seems like a sane thing to do. It may seem a little crazy, but so did flying across continents in a giant metal container once.

Further reading

Merkle on cryonics

LessWrong’s cryonics wiki

Robin Hanson on cryonics

What is your life worth?’, John Broome

——–

  1. “A person is dead according to the information-theoretic criterion if their memories, personality, hopes, dreams, etc. have been destroyed in the information-theoretic sense. That is, if the structures in the brain that encode memory and personality have been so disrupted that it is no longer possible in principle to restore them to an appropriate functional state, then the person is dead. If the structures that encode memory and personality are sufficiently intact that inference of the memory and personality are feasible in principle, and therefore restoration to an appropriate functional state is likewise feasible in principle, then the person is not dead.” – Ralph Merkle, from here
  2. “ We report here the detailed case history of a rabbit kidney that survived vitrification and subsequent transplantation, a case that demonstrates both the fundamental feasibility of complex system vitrification and the obstacles that must still be overcome, of which the chief one in the case of the kidney is adequate distribution of cryoprotectant to the renal medulla.”
  3. Example 1. Example 2.
  4. Steve Jobs: “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” (from here.) Jobs was a brilliant man, but he also believed that a fruit-only diet would get rid of his cancer, so we shouldn’t believe everything he said.
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Status

One hack taught to actors and politicians is to say lines while keeping their head perfectly still. It makes them seem more impressive.

This trick works because of status. Status is an invaluable concept for talking about human interaction. A book about acting and improvisation (Impro by Keith Johnstone) convinced me of this.

If you divide a group of people in a room into As and Bs, get them to talk in pairs, and ask the As to blink as little as possible and ask the Bs to blink much more frequently, something funny happens: the As begin to speak much slower, tend to stand straighter, and so on, whereas the Bs constrict their posture, look distinctly uncomfortable, tend to point their toes inward. In short, the ‘A’s are playing high status and ‘B’s are playing low.

In this sense, ‘status’ describes a set of behaviours. So a servant could play higher status than a king. (“Your Highness, that was rather stupid of you.” “But Jeeves, I thought it would make him go away!” “Nonsense, your Majesty…” etc.) High status behaviours include: blinking less frequently, speaking with a fixed rather than a moving head, open postures, pointing toes outwards rather than inwards, resonant voice, straight spine, slower movements, smiling baring both sets of teeth rather than just the top, qualifying one’s sentences less often, and many more. Try saying Clint Eastwood’s line ‘Feeling lucky, punk?’ while moving your head, then saying it with a perfectly fixed head and unblinking stare. The line doesn’t work unless you behave a certain way.

Status also relates to space. Servants bow, kneel, prostrate themselves, shutting off themselves from the space around them. A common way of humiliating someone is to attack them while refusing to let them ‘switch off’: drill sergeants will yell an inch away from a soldier’s face.

Grabbing the head or touching the face of someone, and not being rebuffed, is a sign of high status. Watch the behaviour of generals before a battle in movies, e.g. Aragorn. They’ll often grab the back of the head, or the neck, of a soldier when bolstering their courage.

You have friendlier feelings towards people who you can safely play status games with, i.e. whose status you can lower, and who can lower yours, without recrimination. Good friends can spend hours which consist of hardly anything except joking insults. Whereas you could know someone for a long time and still behave relatively formally, which means being careful to maintain roughly equal status.

One could see tragedy as the expulsion of the high-status animal out of the pack. It works far better if the lead is high status – notice how many heroes of tragic drama were kings/princes/generals.

Observe people at work and how their physical behaviours change when talking to managers/seniors compared to how they talk to subordinates. When talking to subordinates, people tend to make more eye contact, blink less, make more expansive gestures, talk with more resonant voices. This is reversed when talking to ‘superiors’. You can create tension by playing high status to ‘superiors’, which, if they are insecure, will make them ‘put you in your place’ by displays of domination. To make people like you, play roughly equal status to them.

What you end up realising, after reading Impro, is that no human interaction is without status transactions, even of the most minute sort. A common drama exercise is to have two people doing an exercise where they have to minimize the status difference between themselves. The acting suddenly looks ‘real’: the actors focus on each other, and the command ‘minimize status differences’ captures a whole lot of complex behaviours that the actors can perform without consciously thinking about – because they do it in real life anyway.

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Heuristics

One thing I have noticed about interesting people is that they have short, pithy rules for making decisions. The rules are short because they need to be memorable. And yet they often yield the right decision.

I collect such rules here. This is mostly selfish: these rules seem to work, so it pays to remember and apply them. Thus, if I think a heuristic is wrong, it isn’t included here.

It’s also important to note that none of these rules are perfect. For example, you don’t always need to work on stuff that would make your friends say ‘wow’. It’s just a good way of focussing on impact.

I’d love to collect more of these. If you know any good ones, please leave a comment.

The list is here: http://nabeelqu.com/heuristics/

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Ethics & Animal Rights

“The question is not, Can they reason? Nor can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

- Jeremy Bentham

Imagine growing up in 18th century America. Your family might own slaves, your friends’ families might own slaves, and it would be entirely normal to grow up around slaves. Most people did not worry about the ethics of slavery, until the Abolitionists came along and made it an issue.1

It’s probable that you and I wouldn’t have kicked up a fuss about it. Protesting would have risked social ostracisation.

In the same way that people didn’t think of black people as people until somebody else forced them to look at what was right in front of them, most people didn’t think of animals as worthy of moral consideration until Peter Singer came along and sparked the animal liberation movement in the West. It’s still a minority view. I grew up eating meat; my friends all eat meat; my parents grew up eating meat; and so on. Eating meat is normal.

This will eventually change.

The more you examine it, the more our attitude to animals seems logically inconsistent.2 Most people would be outraged if they were out in the park walking their dog, and some random stranger came up to them and shot the dog dead. But when it’s someone else killing an animal after putting it up in living conditions that amount to torture, we look the other way.

Perhaps, however, you would kill an animal yourself for the sole purpose of eating it. If this is true, I’m still willing to bet that you wouldn’t kill and eat a human. So there must be some important distinction between humans and animals, such that eating animals is OK but eating humans isn’t.

But what is that distinction? It can’t be intelligence, because otherwise eating infant babies would be OK. The obvious answer is that we don’t want to harm things that feel pain, and humans feel pain. But so do animals. If harming one is wrong, then harming the other is wrong too.

‘The circle of empathy’ has widened over time. Society went from only valuing the preferences of certain classes of people, and ignoring the preferences of other classes of people (brown people, black people, gay people etc.), to treating all humans equally. I think eventually we’ll come to realize that animals, too, should be included in that circle. There is no good reason to exclude them.

Further Reading

  • I highly recommend Peter Singer’s work. All of the above is basically an informal statement of his philosophically rigorous case.
  • A great exploration using the medium of short fiction is done by JM Coetzee in his Tanner Lecture ‘The Lives of Animals’.
  • Jonathan Safran Foer explores the broader questions nicely in his book Eating Animals.

—–

  1. A few weeks after writing this, I came across the late Aaron Swartz’s essay, ‘Against Reflective Equilibrium‘, which takes a similar line of argument. It’s a common manuever, so the similarity isn’t that surprising, but it’s still striking.
  2. Amusing example from David Foster Wallace (pdf):

    “It occurs to me that I had bacon yesterday and am even now looking forward to my first corn dog of the fair. I’m standing here wringing my hands over a distressed swine and then I’m going to go pound down a corn dog(…) I can imagine what (the swineherders) think of us, cooing at the swine: we fairgoers don’t have to deal with the business of breeding and feeding our meat; our meat simply materializes at the corn-dog stand, allowing us to separate our healthy appetites from fur and screams and rolling eyes. We tourists get to indulge our tender animal-rights feelings with our tummies full of bacon…”

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The Smears Against Edward Snowden Have Begun

David Brooks, writing for the NYT, informs us that:

he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school

and that:

he has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years.

Jeffrey Toobin, of the New Yorker, writes that Snowden is:

a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.

In a really marvelous piece called ‘10 Things to Know About Edward Snowden’, Politico decided that the most important thing you need know is that “He doesn’t have a high school diploma”. No. 3 is “He wasn’t a friendly neighbour”.

These smears would be laughable, if they weren’t sad. When people have nothing intelligent to say, they resort to name-calling and ad hominem attacks. Snowden’s relationship with his mother has nothing to do with, well, anything.

This isn’t new. Whenever revelations like these appear, the media launches a coordinated effort to smear the character of the revealer.

Back in the 70s, a guy named Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, which showed that the government had lied about Vietnam & dragged the US into a war that it knew:

  • It couldn’t win
  • Would kill many more people than they said it would

After the leak, the government went into full attack mode. They even broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. They investigated dozens of his family, friends, & colleagues, to find anything damaging, that could distract from what he was saying.

Another whistleblower, Julian Assange, received even more brutal treatment. Here’s another hit piece on him, again run by the NYT, filled with subtly negative phrases like “dwindling number of loyalists”, “notoriety”, “erratic and imperious behavior”, “delusional grandeur” et al.

The sad thing is, this stuff works. A lot of my friends are incredibly smart people, but when you ask most of them about Julian Assange, I hear comments like “oh, he’s a bit creepy” or “he seems really narcissistic”. People largely stopped talking about what Wikileaks revealed years ago, & now discussion of Assange is dominated by the usual cliches about him being arrogant, a rapist, etc. That’s when you know the character assassination has worked: when even smart people have forgotten about the real point.

As Assange himself said to CNN: “Do you want to talk about deaths of 104,000 people or my personal life?”.

We can’t expect the mainstream media to do a great job on this. Perhaps we should step up and do something ourselves.

Update: good discussion on HN here.

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Why I Run Marathons

A lot of people are mystified as to why I run marathons. So I thought I’d write about it.

It’s ‘endurance practice’. Getting through a marathon requires an extraordinary mental effort not to stop when your entire body is screaming at you to stop.

Why? The body can only store about 20 miles’ worth of glycogen (an easily accessible form of energy derived from carbs) before turning to other sources of fuel such as fat. So the last six miles of a marathon are agony. (Known as ‘hitting the wall’).

But once you’ve pushed through those last six miles, your mind internalizes the fact that it can do more or less what it wants, even if the body complains. That lesson applies to all sorts of areas.

(Related: By endurance we conquer.)

It’s joyful. Maybe this is just because I’m desk-bound at work all the time, but the sheer pleasure of moving outside compels me to run. I get restless if I haven’t done it in a few days. Most of us don’t experience this anymore: I only discovered it after a few months’ running. Discovering a new, reliable source of joy is valuable.

It’s a form of meditation. My mind quietens down after running for 20-30 minutes. Our minds need quiet time just to wander, generate ideas, etc: running distances is one way of doing that. (Paul Graham recommends taking hikes.) I don’t take any electronic stuff with me when running.

Emotional stability. You could think of your life as a ‘portfolio’ of different things: work, relationships, etc. The more things in your portfolio, the less impact each has on your overall ‘position’. So maybe you had a bad week at work, but you also reached a personal best while running. Result: stability.

It’s healthy. Everyone knows that exercise is healthy. Running, in particular, makes me feel great afterwards: I’m clear-headed and can think quicker, I feel more energetic, I sleep better, food tastes better, colours are brighter, etc.

It’s communal. I train alone, but the race itself is a communal experience. Thousands of you wait together before the event starts while music & trumpets play, announcers blare into their mics, crowds cheer, etc. It feels exactly like what I imagine going into battle to feel like, minus the fear – like your heart’s swelling. It sounds absurd, but is actually great fun.

Runners tend to be pretty nice to each other, too, since the marathon isn’t really a competitive sport except at the elite level. You’re only racing against yourself.

It’s an excuse to go outside. Related to the ‘joy’ thing: I feel terrible if I spend too much time indoors. I refuse to run on treadmills, because it’s boring and sterile. But being outside is awesome: there’s value in just observing things, whether it’s trees in a park or the architecture of houses in different parts of London.

It’s a massive ‘f you’ to mortality. I’m not going to be able to do this when I’m older and disintegrating. It seems worth enjoying now.

You can probably get most of these from other forms of exercise as well. I picked running because all I needed were some shoes to do it. It worked out pretty well, though.

The main thing to remember is that you won’t like it straightaway: it takes 4-6 weeks of regular running before your body/mind adjust and you start enjoying it. So push through.

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Good Ideas And Beliefs

My favourite thing about Peter Thiel’s lectures (via BlakeMasters), was Thiel’s question: “What do you believe that almost no one else believes?”

This is basically the efficient market hypothesis applied to ideas.

Think of the set of all money-making ideas, and assume that you have a market full of entrepreneurs who want to make money. All of the obvious valuable ideas are grabbed and those markets become saturated. Only non-obvious ideas remain, and many of those are grabbed, too.

The bar of difficulty is high: most things have been taken already. Only the ideas that lie in unexpected directions are left, and most people don’t take those directions, because they don’t look like they could work to the average person.

Think of it as a treasure hunt, where all the areas of the map that are:

  1. Obviously promising for treasure
  2. Not dangerous

are exhausted. The only areas that remain are the ones that either seem non-promising, or dangerous. The business versions of these obstacles are: “that will never work, what a crazy idea”, and “that’s way too difficult, you’ll never manage that without getting eaten” respectively.

And yet, some opportunities will always exist. The map is never exhausted.

You just have to be either fearless (to get over the danger) or unconventional (to go to the areas that seem unpromising).

A nice illustration of the ‘non-promising’ argument is from Paul Buchheit inventing AdSense on his blog. It fits the pattern: people thought it was an obviously bad idea and, in any case, probably too hard.

The great thing about this process was that I didn’t need to sell anyone on my ideas. I would just write the code, release the feature, and watch the response. Usually, everyone (including me) would end up hating whatever it was (especially my ideas), but we always learned something from the experience, and we were able to quickly move on to other ideas.

The most dramatic example of this process was the creation of content targeted ads (now known as “AdSense”, or maybe “AdSense for Content”). The idea of targeting our keyword based ads to arbitrary content on the web had been floating around the company for a long time – it was “obvious”. However, it was also “obviously bad”. Most people believed that it would require some kind of fancy artificial intelligence to understand the content well enough to target ads, and even if we had that, nobody would click on the ads. I thought they were probably right.

However, we needed a way for Gmail to make money, and Sanjeev Singh kept talking about using relevant ads, even though it was obviously a “bad idea”. I remained skeptical, but thought that it might be a fun experiment, so I connected to that ads database (I assure you, random engineers can no longer do this!), copied out all of the ads+keywords, and did a little bit of sorting and filtering with some unix shell commands. I then hacked up the “adult content” classifier that Matt Cutts and I had written for safe-search, linked that into the Gmail prototype, and then loaded the ads data into the classifier. My change to the classifier (which completely broke its original functionality, but this was a separate code branch) changed it from classifying pages as “adult”, to classifying them according to which ad was most relevant. The resulting ad was then displayed in a little box on our Gmail prototype ui. The code was rather ugly and hackish, but more importantly, it only took a few hours to write!

I then released the feature on our unsuspecting userbase of about 100 Googlers, and then went home and went to sleep. The response when I returned the next day was not what I would classify as “positive”. Someone may have used the word “blasphemous”. I liked the ads though – they were amusing and often relevant. An email from someone looking for their lost sunglasses got an ad for new sunglasses. The lunch menu had an ad for balsamic vinegar.

AdSense is now worth 28% of Google’s revenue, or almost $10 billion.

Finding ideas in areas that don’t seem promising seems pretty hard. One trick is to ask the question: will things still be that way in 100 years? If not, how should they change?

Google may seem like it will exist forever, but are you really telling me that people will still be using Google for search in 100 years? Probably not. If that’s the case, then something will displace Google – sooner or later. Why not now?

I said at the start of this post that the business logic mirrors the idea logic. What about ideas?

Well, think of a set of beliefs. Actually, think of the set of all sets of beliefs, i.e. a load of ‘belief-packages’. What era you are born in, and where, determines where you land in this set. (Being born in ancient Greece means that I most likely have a very different set of beliefs to someone born in the UK today.)

We know that every era in the past had belief-sets that had mixed proportions of true/false factual beliefs, or right/wrong moral beliefs. No society thus far has had fully-true-on-average belief-sets, or fully ‘right’ belief-sets.

It is improbable that our society has got there. So there must be some factual beliefs that we hold that are untrue, or moral beliefs that are wrong.

It’s worth thinking about what those are. After all, at some point in the future someone is going to prove some of our beliefs wrong. Which ones do we think those will be?

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What It’s Like To Be Racially Profiled

I’m a British citizen, and have grown up here most of my life. My parents are from Pakistan.

Every time I’ve been to the US, I’ve been pulled aside from all the other people going through passport control, and ordered into a waiting room. Once it was both me and my little brother, who was 14 at the time. (This hasn’t happened to me anywhere other than the US.)

After a long flight, I’m usually in a semi-comatose state, my ears buzzing slightly. I don’t sleep well on planes, so I’m very tired. I trudge slowly along in the queues. Finally, I get to the gate and hand the officer my passport.

Since you know what’s coming, you try and look as ‘normal’ as possible: smile a bit and otherwise maintain a neutral expression. The usual routine, of course, is that they stamp your passport and hand it back, at which point you gladly reclaim your stuff and head out to meet whoever you’re meeting.

Instead, he (it’s usually a he) looks at you. You look back evenly. He then gets out, walks over to an officer standing behind the booth, hands over your passport to him, mutters a few things, comes back, and tells you to follow the officer.

The people behind you in the queue notice, which is annoying, because now you feel like you’ve done something wrong, even though you haven’t. Your heart sinks. You’re really tired and just want to go to bed, but instead you’ve got the prospect of a 3 hour wait ahead of you.

You follow the officer. If you’re feeling particularly annoyed, you ask where you’re being taken. The reply: ‘Just follow me, sir.’

The officers wherever I’ve been in the US have been pretty rude and unfriendly.

He takes you to a large-ish waiting room with a bunch of black seats in rows, tells you sit down, and hands your passport to the officers behind the desk. There are some other people in the waiting room, all identifiably ‘foreign’. Some mother in a headscarf with her kid.

There’s usually someone looking upset while an officer examines the contents of their suitcase in great detail, before taking it out and putting it aside, or just throwing the thing to the floor. They’re gonna have to repack all of that.

You wait awhile, looking expectant. Presumably you’ve been brought here for a reason.

If you’re lucky, you kept a book on you, so you read. Otherwise, you watch the people, and hope your name gets called.

An hour passes. You are seriously annoyed. No one has told you why you’re here. Summoning up some courage, you stand up and walk over to the desk (the others look at you). You ask the officer why you’re here. She orders you – loudly enough for everyone to hear – to sit down and they’ll be with you shortly, sir.

You’re tired as hell. You’re also really angry. A little embarrassed, too. Part of you wants to argue, but it’d be pointless, so you don’t.

You wait, and you wait, and you wait. You think about everything. You go over memories. You smile at the kid a few seats away playing on a Nintendo DS. You wait some more. Your ears are buzzing. It’s indescribably monotonous and stuffy. You wish you hadn’t come.

3 hours later (meanwhile, your phone is out of battery and your aunt is waiting outside for you, convinced you’re dead because your plane landed 4 hours ago and she’s a worrier), someone behind the desk says your name. You go over.

They ask you a few questions. Sometimes they take you into a bare side room with only a table and two chairs, and sometimes it’s just standing at the main desk.

Why are you here? What’s your business here? Who are you seeing? How long have you known them? Where do you work? Did you go to university? What did you study? Why that? Have you ever been to Pakistan? Were you in the military over there? Have you been to the US before?

I’ve been asked all of the above.

You answer in a monotone, trying to sound as English as possible. You keep the sarcasm out of your voice.

Eventually, they stamp your passport and you are escorted out.

Welcome to America.

(Originally on Quora.)

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