Common Knowledge and Miasma

Duncan Sabien makes legible a very common social dynamic: it’s surprising how many times I’ve seen this exact thing happen, without noticing what was happening. To see it put in Game Theory terms is surprising: a new lens I didn’t realise was possible.


How to Eat an Elephant, one Atomic Concept at a time

Kevin Kwok explores going up and down the ladder of abstraction while deciding business strategy. It pairs very well with this old post from the Idea Muse archives #5: The Ladder of Abstraction.


Live and Dead Players

When you’re dealing with someone, how do you know which strategies to use? Better yet, how can you predict the future of an institution, given its people?

This is an exciting distinction by Samo Burja that broadly cuts the space in two: allowing you to quickly discard certain techniques.


All Stories Are Wrong, but Some Are Useful

I’ve been exploring stories for over a year now, and I found some surprising connections that I hadn’t seen before:

  1. How stories create beliefs
  2. How mental models are stories
  3. How stories attack other stories

All these ideas, and lots more, in this new big research post.


Noticing Frame Differences

This excellent post looks at how disagreements arise in conversation, and how to fix them. The images were most valuable to me - showing me how to think about situations like these.


To listen well, get curious

“Good listeners do often reflect words back—but not because they read it in a book somewhere. That’s cargo cult advice: it teaches you to imitate the surface appearance of good listening, but misses what’s actually important, the thing that’s generating that surface appearance. The generator is curiosity.”

I love this post because it shows how conventional advice can be surface level - and leads to the opposite of what you intend.

I think this is often the case. Without a model explaining the advice - the why - I have a hard time trusting it. Even when it comes from my parents, or someone that means well.

Sometimes, I put advice like this in the backlog for “find a model that can explain this advice”


Potential is when you can accelerate faster than your environment can

This is one of many short form posts by Angela Jiang. I’d recommend all of them, they’re excellent!


Games People Play

I’ve been working on this one for the past month or so. It’s a summary of the book called the same name - a fascinating look into psychology, how people act the way they do, and how you can do something about it.


When Money Is Abundant, Knowledge Is The Real Wealth

A short post showing where knowledge trumps money, and how to invest in knowledge, just like how you’d invest to grow money. It’s something I’ve been following for a while, which is probably why this resonated so much with me.


When Biology Isn’t Messy

A short, interesting post portraying an important idea: When something is messy, until it can’t afford to be, what physical constraint or design principle compels it to be non-messy?

Put in life perspective: Why does having guests over lead to cleaning up your house, while otherwise, things can get messy? What constraint enforces this? And of course, for some other people, this isn’t really a constraint: they can afford to still be messy.


Inadequate Equilibria

This is a very interesting book by Eliezer Yudkowsky, touching on Economics, Psychology, and Group Dynamics. I’m half way through, and loving every moment of it! It tries to answer the question: When can you expect humanity to be objectively bad at solving a problem, and how you - an individual - can solve it better for yourself.

For a long time, I’ve had this feeling that whenever I have kids, I could do a much better job of teaching than most schools in the world. This book gave me a framework to understand - and be more confident - in my reasoning.


What Shape are You?

This is a fascinating conceptual framework to think about your work, what your manager does, and how you add value.

Choice quote:

You can’t truly be a senior employee until you see your work as subtractive, and until you have an intuitive feel for the set of all the work that needs to get done. Once you think in this way, you can interact with any other leader as a peer, working elbow-to-elbow, of one mind on what needs doing.


How to make things happen

I think developing high agency is one of the best skills you can cultivate, be it for any profession. Knowing what’s important allows you to relentlessly pursue it, and that’s the core idea in this piece: Priorities make things happen.

I’ve never paid so much weight to priorities (yes, they’re important, but can they be the most important thing to get things done?) - and this piece made me reconsider this.


When can we talk about our systems?

A short piece this week from Seth Godin. My life changed once I started seeing things as a system. This short piece shows opportunities where you can think about the system. If you’re looking for a more in-depth treatment, here’s one from my archives: How to see Systems. (Highly recommend the book in here: Thinking in Systems)


A few rules for predicting the future

This is a fascinating column by Octavia Butler, and I immediately ordered her books after reading this. It talks about what we can learn from our past, and how keeping ourselves in perspective helps. It was written in 2000, and the prediction literature since then has improved a bit. I think this is interesting enough to tackle in a future blog post.


95%-ile isn’t that good

This post talks about something that’s anecdotally true for me: “most people can become (relatively) good at most things”. As I mention on my blog: “I suspect the more things you learn, the better you get at learning new things.” This is a good introduction to how to get there.


Theory of Change

Choice quote:

I was at a party once and I told someone I was writing a book and that I wanted it to be a bestseller. They laughed at that and I think it’s because they had a theory of action model in their head: you write the best book you can, and of course you want it to be a bestseller, but either it does or it doesn’t.

But I was working backwards, I had a theory of change: I asked, What makes something a best seller? Well, lots of people buy it. OK, how do you get lots of people to buy something? Well, you have to persuade them it’s something they want. OK, how do you persuade them it’s something they want? …..


Most of the time, most people do not know precisely what they are talking about

This fascinating short paper looks at how even simple words mislead us. If you haven’t put in the time and effort to understand exactly what you’re talking about, you probably don’t understand it.

It takes a simple concept, “distance”, and explains how we’re misled into thinking one place is “closer” than some other place.

For further reading, this ties in very well with 37 ways words can be wrong.


Asking Questions

I loved this short post. Main idea: Children’s questions are designed to know more about the world, while adults’ questions are designed to avoid looking dumb.

I’ve noticed this a lot, which is why I actively wrap my identity with asking dumb questions. That’s what my Twitter profile says: I ask lots of dumb questions.


Why the Culture wins

On the face of it, this is a review of a science fiction book, which seems weird. But it’s something a lot more than a review: it’s connecting ideas about culture, society, and what happens when technology removes all fitness constraints for a culture.

The only fiction I read is science fiction, precisely because it stretches my imagination. And good science fiction is a window into the future.

A fun quote:

Marx’s claim is that there are functional relations between technology and social structure, so that you can’t just combine them any old way. Marx was, in this regard, certainly right, hence the sociological naiveté that lies at the heart of Dune. Feudalism with energy weapons makes no sense – a feudal society could not produce energy weapons, and energy weapons would undermine feudal social relations.


Bayes Theorem: A Framework for Critical Thinking

This is the monster blog post I’ve been working on for the past 2 months! It took up all my weekends, but it in the end, turned out pretty well. It’s a big read, covering everything from why we believe what we believe, to how to get better at thinking. Let me know what you think about this by replying here.

If you’re looking for a lighter summer read, here’s William James “The best general advice on Earth


Music in Human Evolution

This is a fascinating theory of the role of music in human evolution. I never thought about this, which made reading this all the more pleasurable.


How to Understand Things

Lots of gems in here. My favourites: Visualise, and don’t just solve a problem once.


It’s Bayes all the way up

An excellent SlateStarCodex piece on top-down and bottom-up processing: A model for how our brains work. The model doesn’t work everywhere, but I love the parts it does explain, like seeing faces in clouds!

It’s a web archive link because the website is down right now, mired in the New York Times Controversy.


Shape of Stories

This is an excellent categorisation of stories. What’s cool to me is that everything that is based on a story would have the same categories! This piece explores just three of them, and it made the generalisation click for me.


A Measure of Sacrifice

This is an excellent history of time. Why we started keeping time, the benefits that arose out of it, and how technology - the mechanical clock - became an arbiter for human disputes.


What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage

This NewYorkTimes piece put operant conditioning into a new perspective for me. Of course it can work on humans, too!

I’ve started keeping a pack of M&M’s handy, so I can condition myself. Haven’t had a chance to use them, yet. It’s not all about the M&M’s though: I’ve started noticing when I mentally kick myself for not having thought of something. I’m not sure if this is sending the right signal - I always want to know if I made a mistake. Correcting it comes later. If my brain shuts down to feedback, that’s much worse!


4 Ideas from The Idea Muse

It’s been one year since I started The Idea Muse, and I just wanted to thank you for sticking around - it’s been a lot of fun.

In honour of the anniversary, here’s 4 of my favourite ideas from past issues of the Idea Muse, and connections I’ve made between them and everything else.


How to Convince People

I enjoyed this short piece, specially the section on listening. How well can you pick up clues about what’s really driving someone? Once you do, how well can you align what they want with what you want?


Studies on Slack

Not the company, but the concept. This is an excellent post diving into how important slack can be to you. I came across this concept first in the Theory of Constraints: if everyone is busy all the time, your company is terribly inefficient.


A Commencement Address Too Honest To Be Delivered in Person

“No, my worry is that, especially now that you’re out of college, you won’t put enough really excellent stuff into your brain. I’m talking about what you might call the “theory of maximum taste.” This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff.”

This one’s for everyone, not just “kids” just graduating college. More often than not, it’s the adults who are less interesting than the kids.

This scared me, which is why a big part of “growing up” for me was nourishing my childish virtues: curiosity and life long learning. That’s one big reason why this newsletter exists, too: to find excellent stuff to put in my brain.


The Intelligent Social Web

Over the past few weeks (and for the next few) I’m diving deep into Rationality. This post is an excellent model for how social interactions take place and how to think about society.

The comments, specially those titled Review 2018 are worth exploring, too.

Fair warning: This one’s hard to digest.


The Importance of saying Oops

Not every change is an improvement, but every improvement is necessarily a change. If we only admit small local errors, we will only make small local changes. The motivation for a big change comes from acknowledging a big mistake.


How bundling benefits sellers and buyers

This week, one from the archives! An exploration on bundling, and how counterintuitively, bundling can benefit both sellers and buyers. There’s also common gotchas where bundling can’t work.


How Ventilators Work

This is an excellent summary about Ventilators, how they work, and why we don’t have enough right now.

I rarely share time-relevant posts, since they lose significance quickly, but this one’s close enough to the coronavirus while being general enough to be useful after the pandemic.


Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

.. If you’re wondering why I’ve suddenly pivoted to fiction, don’t worry, I haven’t for the most part. I found yet another missing piece of the puzzle. Stories prime intuition. They substitute for experience. I hinted at this with my last post, on Vocabulary as a Meta Mental Model.

But here’s the general idea: read the fan-fiction above to understand better the triggers for putting your rational brain to work. And in the end, stay for the story.

It’s 2,000 pages long, took me two weeks to finish, but it was very well worth it!

P.s: Apologies about not sending last week’s issue. Working from home whacked all my routines out of place (and I was distracted by this book ;) )


Against The Grain

Book review by Scott Alexander

The comment section is worth going through, too. The author posits that cereal grains were born out of a necessity: they were easier to tax, and had the highest calorific output. Imaginably, others are skeptical.

In other news, I wrote a new blog post this week about using the vocabulary to organise and find mental models: Vocabulary as a Meta Mental Model. You’ll find something actionable in here. It made it to Page 1 on Hacker News last night!


Best Introductory Books on Every Subject

This is more a repository of ideas than one specific idea. It’s a list of the best beginner books on almost every subject.


Contemplations on Cascades

I started thinking about how cascades work a year ago. This is everything I’ve discovered, researched, and created.

It’s a roller coaster, starting with examples of cascades, to creating a categorization for them, to learning how to influence them, and then leveraging them in your personal life.


To Get Good, Go After The Metagame

To me, this feels a lot like the process of ongoing improvement. Find the limiting factors, and work on those. This explores the same using the idea of the meta: The game about the game. It hints at what’s missing and areas to improve in - aka a way to find limiting factors.

I’m going through this process in public for the first time: I’m learning bouldering. I’ve done this process a few times before (not publicly though): learning a language, how to juggle, and swimming. Hope you find something interesting here!


Iron: From mythical to mundane

This is an excellent summary of how iron came to be used everywhere. Very interesting, and now I can explain the difference between iron, steel, and stainless steel.


CFAR Participant Handbook

This is a treasure-trove of wisdom. It’s the participant handbook used in Center For Applied Rationality’s 4 day seminar. Everything in here is excellent.


How to give a great presentation

I probably would’ve sent something else this week, but I also came across this excellent presentation by Benedict Evans: Standing on the shoulders of giants. There’s a reason it’s just the slides: you don’t need the video to understand what’s going on.

Together, they helped me understand how to make an interesting presentation.


A dangerous introduction to Rene Girard

This is a wonderfully written introduction to Rene Girard and his ideas surrounding memetic theory. I found his books inaccessible, so reading this gave me a lot of context to his ideas.

And now, I understand Peter Thiel better, too.

P.s: The first things I did in the middle of this long introduction was to google the criticisms to Mimetic theory. Sure enough, there are quite a few. So, I need to be wary of where I try and apply this. But that will come with practice and becoming intimately familiar with this idea.


Limits of Logic

Brace yourself for some arcane mathematics.

I’ve tried to wrestle with Godel, Escher, Bach before, but it seemed too unwieldy. I didn’t get anything. It was a slog, and I stopped reading.

This video by the author looks at Godel’s incompleteness theorem, and what it means for maths.

My favourite generalised insight: A system with self-referencing statements can never be complete. That is, if you believe if something is true for a system, it must be provable - including claims the system can make about itself.

Godel proves that isn’t possible. There will some things that are true, but UNPROVABLE. This blows my mind. And now I understand why this is such a big deal for maths.

I deliberately use system instead of “math”. Where else can this apply?


The wisdom and/or madness of crowds

This is an interesting explorable explanation of how connections between people affect crowds.

The most surprising insight: In a world with 33% of drinkers (minority), you can convince everyone that majority of their friends are drinkers.

There’s more nuances to it, but I’d let you figure that out via the link!


How to learn soft skills

I’ve long been trying to formulate why specific fiction is great for learning. This does it extremely well:

Most “soft skills” books are not trying to add explicit statements to your store of “trusted explicit/verbal statements”. Instead, they are trying to evoke experiments to try out in your inner simulator – bits that you can then keep, or not, according to whether they feel promising when you imagine trying them out.

As promised, here are the best things I learned in 2019. I had lots of fun writing this - it’s an artefact putting together everything I learned in 2019. Tell me what you think about this :)

I’d recommend doing your own, there are how-to tips sprinkled everywhere, and in the end!


The Story of Us

I spent the entire week reading and mulling over this. I’m sending this email a day late, because I wanted to say: “It keeps getting better”, and indeed it does.

This is a series of ten posts (more probably to come) that Tim Urban spent the last 3 years researching. There’s proof of work right there. Books are information dense and great because they are hard - they take much longer to write than a simple blog post.

This is on the same level.


Going Critical

A beautiful look at how network systems interact. Why are cities a cultural hub compared to villages? Why is Silicon Valley the hub for tech? Why fashion takes root in high school students vs parents?

Yep, it covers all those cases. I loved reading this.

If you’re engrossed by systems after that, pair it up with this: How to see Systems


Implementing an Idea Management System

It’s an interesting take on what all your idea management system needs to have. I’ve been looking for an alternative to Evernote, since the 1000s of ideas I’ve captured over the past year have now become .. unwieldy.

But, Roam Research seems promising. I hopped on a call with the founder this week, and I’m excited where things will go with this app. So far, I love it!


The Specificity Sequence

It’s a new LessWrong sequence that explores a superpower - being specific. The part I link to above is the best.


Anatomy for beginners

Warning: This video can be scary. It involves a live dissection, and I was debating whether I should send this around or not.

But in the end, this newsletter is about things I find remarkably interesting, and this is without a doubt one of them. It’s one of four videos in a series exploring movement, circulation, digestion, and reproduction. All the videos blew me away.

Did you know there are blood vessels inside our bones? And when you make a claw with your hands, the “lines” that show up on the back aren’t bones, but tendons. Or that a muscle always connects two different bones. There will be no movement if it’s connected to the same bone. And finally, muscles only work in one direction, which is why you always need a corresponding pair on the other side to bring your bones back in position (e.g: biceps and triceps)

This is beautiful.


The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius

PG is back to writing essays, which is awesome.

Key takeaway for me here: If this theory is true, we can cultivate genius by cultivating interest.


Making wrong code look wrong

There’s two important components to things -

  1. Learning to see what matters (what Joel calls clean)
  2. Learning to make it clean / make it look unclean so you can then clean it.

It’s exciting because it doesn’t just apply to code, or a bakery, but something much more powerful: your habits.

Triggers for habits come from your environment. If you’ve never paid attention to what triggers you (for ex: couch and TV in direct line of sight when entering your home) - you can’t distinguish a “clean” from an “unclean” environment.

But once you do, you can think about how to clean it, or how to make it look unclean so you know you have to clean it sometime.

This seems an interesting thread to pull on. Where else can you apply this idea?


How to engineer biology

“The fact that we are still discovering biology doesn’t mean that we can’t design. We can engineer the tools we use to manage biology.”

This is a really exciting piece about how we can figure out a Moore’s law for Biology.


You are solving the wrong problem

“When you are solving a difficult problem re-ask the problem so that your solution helps you learn faster. Find a faster way to fail, recover, and try again. If the problem you are trying to solve involves creating a magnum opus, you are solving the wrong problem.”

I love this. It’s a fun rehash on my belief that “accelerating feedback loops is a cheat code”


What do executives do, anyway?

An executives’ job is not to set the strategy, but to get the people one level lower to figure it out and implement it. What they do get to set are the values which then drive the appropriate strategy.

There’s probably more nuance to it, but I loved getting this insight into what people above me really do.


A framework for putting mental models to practice

This is an exciting exploration of putting mental models to practice. I haven’t yet made up my mind about whether it’s accurate, but as Cedric says, it’s a helpful framework for thinking about mental models and their application.


Confident Idiots

An excerpt:

Here’s a particularly frightful example: Driver’s education courses, particularly those aimed at handling emergency maneuvers, tend to increase, rather than decrease, accident rates. They do so because training people to handle, say, snow and ice leaves them with the lasting impression that they’re permanent experts on the subject. In fact, their skills usually erode rapidly after they leave the course. And so, months or even decades later, they have confidence but little leftover competence when their wheels begin to spin.

I uncovered this as a result of research for this article: Everything about the Dunning Kruger effect.


Friston’s Free Energy Principle

There’s this genius who has been working on a theory for human-agents. A theory that might just make Isaac Asimov’s Psychohistory possible. Reading this gave me goosebumps.

This article, although a super interesting introduction, doesn’t really go into the nitty gritty. The Wikipedia page was too daunting, too. So, I’ve settled with digesting Scott Alexander’s notes on the same!


The days are long but the decades are short.

Life advice from Sam Altman.

My favourites:

  1. Have clear goals for yourself every day, year and decade.
  2. One of the benefits of working hard is that good opportunities will come along, but it’s still up to you to jump on them when they do.
  3. Ask for what you want. (I can never do enough of this)
  4. Go out of your way to be around smart, interesting, ambitious people.

#4 is my main focus this year and I haven’t been doing great. Are you someone smart, interesting, or ambitious? Do you know someone smart, interesting, or ambitious? Are you in London? Please reach out, I’d love to talk / meet you.

(Did you see what I did there? I used #3 to get #4.)


Do not end the week with nothing

I love Patrick’s blog - guiding people from leveraging their time to leveraging their assets. This is step 1: At the end of the week, what do you have to show for your work?


Meditations on Moloch

.. It took me seven tries over 2 years to read this. Everyone told me it was great, but I just couldn’t get myself past the poem in the beginning. It’s just like Season 1, episode 1 of Game of Thrones. Took me a while to get started, but once I did, I just couldn’t stop reading! I hope this serves as one of many pushes you might need.

Why is Prisoner’s Dilemma a dilemma? This essay provides intuition about that, then goes on to list several multipolar traps, which finally end with Nature’s god - and why our project as a civilization must necessarily be to control it.

If you get lost in the weeds, learning about Gnon, here’s a primer (the link in the original article is broken) : Capturing Gnon. However, come here only after reading about Moloch.

If you do end up reading this rollercoaster, let me know!


Epistemic learned helplessness

What if going against tradition isn’t as smart as you thought? This piece by Scott Alexander ruffled too many feathers for me. When there are really good arguments for both sides, which side do you follow?

This essay poses the question, and the following essays in the sequence answer it. Reading this has given me newfound respect for culture. I need to be much more cautious when I go against it.


A Guide to Climate Change

This is by me.

It’s surprising how misinformed I was about climate change. This one’s to disperse some of those ideas.


The Universal Laws

Morgan Housel explores laws from diverse fields that hold universal truth. My favourite is Dollo’s law: In evolution, organisms can’t re-evolve to a former state because the path that led to its former state was so complicated that the odds of retracing that exact path round to zero.

This fits into my model of how dinosaurs didn’t evolve again after the asteroid hit. Or how, who we call homo sapiens won’t come back if we mess up this time.


We don’t sell saddles here

Slack’s story about understanding their product. When building something people don’t know they want, you need to execute to perfection.


Against Lie Inflation

When a definition encompasses 100% of the people in the world, the word stops being useful. Makes sense, right? This piece by Scott Alexander goes into where we (un)knowingly do this in everyday life.


How to detect bias

It’s a Paul Graham classic ( Don’t know how I never saw this before! ). 3 small paragraphs that make perfect sense. I was blown away by the elegant framing.

In other news, here’s what I wrote this week: Where do analogies break down? It’s an exploration of how to understand concepts better by leveraging analogies, and their breaking point. Further, “blunders” in the business world that happened because of taking an analogy too far.


Reinventing explanation

It’s an explanation of Simpson’s Paradox - making a point using a new media. Our maps ought to aid our intuition.


How Organisations Grow

It’s an interesting idea of how organisations evolve - it ties in nicely with last weeks idea! Taking together the “hacks”, a new model emerges which this essay portrays.

In other news, here’s an interactive summary of Sapiens I wrote this week - Sapiens. I’m really happy how this turned out.


Hacking the non disposable planet

It’s an interesting idea of how complex organisations fail - and how can we keep the current one (us), alive.


Amazon Prime - The people involved

It’s a behind the scenes look of how Amazon Prime came to be. Very revealing. I wonder what gave Jeff Bezos the confidence that he was right?

It’s a brilliant look into Bezos mindset.

“I’m going to change the psychology of people not looking at the pennies differences between buying on Amazon versus buying somewhere else.” Golden.


Bayes Rule: Guide

It’s a guide to Bayesian Thinking.

I learnt Bayes Theorem in school. After reading this ( and working through a few examples from my life ), I realised, I never really understood it. All I had was a formula. I never generated the intuition needed to use it in everyday life.

This solves that, and it blew me away.

Sadly, the website is very janky. (Wait a few minutes for it to load. It made me cry too). My highlights are on the “deep learning” path - it changes the url, hence Highly doesn’t show highlights on all the pages.

Here’s an alternate that works well.


The Ladder of Abstraction

It’s about building an interactive medium to drive intuition and creativity when trying to understand a system.

“There are often multiple ways of abstracting over a parameter, and the more ways we can abstract things out, the more ways we can find of looking at the system.”


Claude Shannon on Creative Thinking

The father of information theory, Claude Shannon on how he solves problems.

It’s beautiful.

“If you don’t have questions, you won’t find the answers.”


Biohack your intelligence

“Everytime we get into deep flow, we adapt. It gets easier the next time.”

It’s an interesting deep dive into biohacking. It’s not about drugs (mostly), but everything else you can do to hack intelligence.

I found some sections helpful - and I’ve begun an experiment to see if it works for me.

Regarding Highly, I made a noob mistake here: Highlighting on the parametrized link instead of the original. That’s why you’ll notice an extra parameter in the url. Ugh!

Do you have a biohacking system? I’ve written about mine earlier.


Money is Law.

“When you have an infinite amount of money, you can enslave a population with no violence at all.”

I recommend the sub link as well. It explains how rare, big stones were this tribes money - and how they developed a credit system around them, instead of lifting and moving those big stones.

It reminds me of how similar fiat and crypto ( and the stones) are.


Grove of Titans - East Coast Management

It has a lot of gems - Compounding knowledge through a multidisciplinary framework is an individual’s greatest enduring advantage. Most geniuses—especially those who lead others—prosper not by deconstructing intricate complexities but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.