Covers shouldn't just be for musicians

Linking Out Loud #17

Hey everyone,

Last week my friend and I, both being Canadians who work for an American company, had Thursday and Friday off for U.S. Thanksgiving. We took the opportunity to visit Salt Spring Island, staying for two nights in an Airbnb that turned out to be part of a lakeside resort. It was wonderful:

Aside from a few frosty jaunts around the island, I mainly curled up by the fire and read William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. I picked it up after seeing Paul Graham’s rather extreme endorsement of it. So far I can’t give that same endorsement, but it is a compelling portrait of an obsession. Check it out if you’re into that kind of thing. The guy really, really likes to surf.


// made by me

Covers shouldn’t just be for musicians

5 minutes | me | 2019

I wish writing covers were considered totally normal. I'm not talking about adaptations, like Joyce's Ulysses (an adaptation of The Odyssey, set in 20th century Dublin), although I would love to see more of those too. By "covers", I mean high-fidelity recreations of other people's written works—comprehensive paraphrases.

>>> Read it


// recently read

Laws of tech: commoditize your complement

40 minutes | Gwern Branwen | 2018

An encyclopedic collection of examples and reflections on the economic concept of complementary goods. If you run Spotify, you want headphones to become cheaper and better. If you manufacture headphones, you want music streaming services to become cheaper and better. This phenomenon can explain a lot of company behaviors that would otherwise seem odd.

>>> Read it

The conquest of ubiquity

5 minutes | Paul Valéry | 1928

A prescient piece from 1928. Here’s an excerpt:

Works of art will acquire a kind of ubiquity. We shall only have to summon them and there they will be, either in their living actuality or restored from the past. They will not merely exist in themselves but will exist wherever someone with a certain apparatus happens to be. A work of art will cease to be anything more than a kind of source or point of origin whose benefit will be available and quite fully so, wherever we wish. Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual- or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.

>>> Read it

The Cactus and the Weasel

40 minutes | Venkatesh Rao | 2014

You may have heard the maxim, “strong views, weakly held.” What about the converse–“weak views, strongly held”? Venkatesh Rao, in his signature 2x2 style, explores this question in the context of Isaiah Berlin’s cognitive archetypes of the hedgehog and the fox.

strongweak

>>> Read it

Blackstone's Byron Wien Discusses Lessons Learned in His First 80 Years

5 minutes | Byron Wien | 2013

I had never heard of Byron Wien before I came across this article, but I found his life lessons thought-provoking. Here is one:

When meeting someone new, try to find out what formative experience occurred in their lives before they were seventeen.  It is my belief that some important event in everyone’s youth has an influence on everything that occurs afterwards.

>>> Read it


// top tweets


Have a great week!

David

davidklaing.com
@davidklaing


Did a friend forward this to you? Join 80 others and get it straight from the source:

Linking Out Loud #16

By David Laing

Hey everyone,

I'm experimenting with a new format. If you have any feedback, I would love to hear it. (You can reply to this email.)

Thank you for reading. I'm grateful that you want to hear from me every week.

To my American readers, have a happy Thanksgiving!


// made by me

Tidy up and make a mess

1 minute | me

An under-appreciated benefit of habitually tidying up is that it gives you more confidence to make useful messes. A few examples...

>>> Read it


// recently read

Context-Sensitivity and the Introvert Experience

5 minutes | Byrne Hobart

Consider the Big Five personality traits: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Is the modern world increasingly being built by and for people who are low on extraversion and high on openness to experience?

>>> Read it

always bet on text

2 minutes | graydon2

Video, audio, virtual reality… all overrated, according to this brief argument. Why should you always bet on text?

>>> Read it

Can somebody volunteer to take notes?

8 minutes | Tanya Reilly

Useful reflections on when, why, and how to take notes in a meeting.

>>> Read it

The Land and Expand Strategy for Reading

7 minutes | Cedric Chin

When you want to learn about a new topic, don’t start with a textbook. First, aim to “land” on the topic by reading stories and everyday examples.

>>> Read it


// older & on my mind

Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others...

7 minutes | Scott Alexander

Not all charities are made equal. If you want to do good with your charitable giving, why not aim to do the most good per dollar?

>>> Read it


// top tweets


Until next week,

David

davidklaing.com
@davidklaing


Did a friend forward this to you? Join 78 others and get it straight from the source:

Linking Out Loud #15: Research as a Stochastic Decision Process

By David Laing

Dear readers,

How can you maximize your impact across a set of potential projects? Arguably, the most important thing is to discover as quickly as possible which projects are dead ends. The more efficiently you can rule out unviable projects, the more time you free up for viable ones. This is the main insight of Jacob Steinhardt's essay, Research as a Stochastic Decision Process.

Steinhardt's thesis is doubly important if, like for many people, a minority of your completed projects are responsible for a majority of your overall impact. You may have heard of the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule, which states that in many systems, the majority of the outputs come from a minority of the inputs. Here is a nice visualization (from Khe Hy):

Suppose that your projects follow this pattern too: most are punts, and few are home runs. Suppose also that you can't predict the impact of a specific project; you only know that home runs are rare. Under these assumptions, it pays to complete as many projects as possible so as to maximize your chances of hitting a home run. That's why it's so important to figure out as efficiently as possible whether you are working on a project that is unfeasible, so that if it is you can move on to a new one.

How can you accomplish this? The key is to correctly prioritize the essential tasks for each project. Say you're a psychologist and you have an idea for a study. Like all projects, this involves a set of essential tasks that you must complete for the project to succeed. For example:

  • Recruit participants.

  • Hire assistants.

  • Book a space.

  • Get ethics approval.

If this project is to fail for reasons outside your control, you want to minimize sunk costs. To this end, you can ask a guiding question about each task: how likely is this task to fail, relative to how long it will take to complete? The more likely a task is to fail, and the less time it will take to complete, the more you should prioritize it. Let's ask this question of each of the tasks above:

  • Recruit participants.

    • Very likely to succeed, and should take a few hours of focus.

  • Hire assistants.

    • Likely to succeed, and should take a few days of focus.

  • Book a space.

    • Very likely to succeed, and should take a few minutes of focus.

  • Get ethics approval.

    • Uncertain whether it will succeed, and should take a few hours of focus.

In this case, your first priority should be to get ethics approval. Since there is uncertainty about whether you will even be approved to perform this experiment, you should find this out before spending time on surefire tasks like hiring assistants and recruiting participants. In Steinhardt's words, prioritize tasks that are "most informative per unit time".

Of course, this advice doesn't apply only to researchers. It applies to all forms of production. Recruiters sourcing candidates, salespeople closing deals, teachers creating lessons, writers writing articles—we can all benefit by terminating our unviable projects sooner.

Yours viably,

David

Linking Out Loud #14: Crony Beliefs

By David Laing

Dear readers,

When looking to fill a position, you might hire someone because they would do a great job. Or you might hire them because they're the mayor's nephew, and pleasing the mayor will be good for business. In the latter case, you have hired a crony—a person who is there to provide social rather than pragmatic value.

Your beliefs about the world can be divided analogously.

Some of your beliefs are valued pragmatically: you hold them because they provide accurate information that can improve your wellbeing when acted upon. If you believe it might rain today, you will bring a raincoat. If you believe it takes 30 minutes to bike to work, you will depart at 8:30am to arrive by 9:00am.

These beliefs are held to a high standard. If one of them turns out to be inaccurate, you are likely to "fire" it immediately and replace it with a better one. When dealing with these beliefs, your mind is a meritocracy.

But you have other beliefs that are more like the mayor's nephew. These beliefs are valued socially: you hold them because they signal to others the type of person you are. If you believe Taylor Swift's music is mainstream drivel, you might appear cultured. If you believe that abortion is wrong, you might appear moral. (With such beliefs, it always depends who you are signaling to.)

Like the mayor's nephew, these latter beliefs are not there to do a practical job—at least, not the one they have ostensibly been hired to do. They are there to help you play politics. They are crony beliefs, the subject of one of Kevin Simler's most provocative essays.

Simler argues that crony beliefs explain some of the gravest and most common errors in our thinking. I find his argument persuasive, but the reason I often think back to his essay is for the lucid mental model it offers for thinking about how beliefs come to be. While social and pragmatic value might appear to be dichotomous categories, it makes more sense to see them as orthogonal dimensions:

Just as the mayor's nephew could genuinely be good at his job, your belief may have both social and pragmatic value. For example, you might believe that it's wise to get a yearly flu vaccine. In many circles, this belief will score you some social points. And if it's accurate, it will also diminish your risk of getting the flu this season.

Crony beliefs are not necessarily false, and ‘merit’ beliefs are not necessarily true. However, the more a belief seems to reward or punish you socially rather than pragmatically, the more you should raise your standards for believing it confidently. This is easier said than done, of course, since crony beliefs tend to get wrapped up in your identity. After all, that is precisely what they exist to advertise.

Yours pragmatically,

David

Linking Out Loud #13: Leverage Points

By David Laing

Dear readers,

If there were ever an appropriate place to use the Galaxy Brain meme unironically, it would be to describe Donella Meadows' 1999 essay, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Reflecting on her career as an environmental scientist, Meadows lists twelve categories of "leverage points"—metaphorical buttons to press to change the performance or behavior of a system— from least to most impactful.

I encourage you to read the essay in full. You will feel your brain expanding as you go. But if you don't have time, here is my summary, in Galaxy Brain form:

Parameters

The least impactful way to intervene in a system is to change the values of its parameters. Consider sleep. On any given day, I can tweak several parameters: what time I go to bed; how much caffeine I consume; how much water I drink in the evening; etc. Changing parameters does have some effect, but it has less of an effect than applying any of the other leverage points.

Feedback loops

Much more impactful is to create new feedback loops, or alter existing ones. While I may succeed in going to bed on time one night, I am likely to fail the next night if the consequences of failure are not clear or timely. Fatigue provides some feedback, but it kicks in too slowly and it’s often vague—after a few nights of too little sleep I’ll find that I’m in a bad mood, or that I’m distractible. That’s why I like my Fitbit: it tells me immediately when I didn’t sleep enough, and this motivates me get to bed on time the following night.

Goals

As we evolve from the regular brain to the shining one, there is a phase shift. We are no longer pressing buttons that affect the system's performance; we are pressing buttons that affect its purpose. As much as I could change my sleep habits by tweaking parameters and feedback loops, I’m likely to change them even more by reframing the goal of those habits—say, from sleeping more to sleeping better. Goals are more powerful leverage points than parameters or feedback loops because they influence every part of the system, not just individual components of it.

Paradigms

Finally, as we evolve to the Galaxy Brain, we change something even deeper than the goals of the system: we change the paradigm or mindset that gives rise to those goals. For example, perhaps I realize that the true linchpin of my well-being is not sleep, but diet. This change in mindset is likely to affect much more than just my sleep habits. That’s why paradigms are the most impactful leverage point: they affect not just one system, but many.

It’s not always appropriate to apply the most powerful leverage point available. Sometimes the paradigms, goals, and feedback loops are already configured correctly, and the only things left to fix are the parameters.

But often it is wise to look beyond parameters, especially when appraising the systems that affect us all, like government, education, the economy, and the natural world. Like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot, we sometimes need leverage points that have the power to slice through our problems, rather than trying in vain to untangle them from the inside.

Yours galactically,

David

Loading more posts…