Disclaimer: I'm guilty of doing all the crap I complain about below.
What’s something that’s obvious but nobody talks about?
It is obvious that most of us are terrified to admit when we don't know something. We can't handle the discomfort of acknowledging our own ignorance so we reflexively manufacture opinions on just about everything.
And I mean everything. I bet if I asked my Comcast guy what the U.S. should do in Syria, he’d have an answer. If I asked his boss, I bet the answer would be even longer.
We think we’ll look stupid if we admit we don’t know something so we conjure up uninformed opinions instead, which has the effect of actually making us stupid.
I don't think most of us are even conscious that this is happening. We deceive ourselves into thinking we know something first, then we attempt to deceive others.
Somebody asks us what we think about the trade war with China and, without realizing what we're doing, we convince ourselves that we know enough to offer an informed opinion. I'm continually amazed by how many people I follow on Twitter appear to be foreign policy experts despite having never tweeted or shared opinions on the topic before.
We can't handle the fact that we might not know something and the symptoms are everywhere.
When was the last time you heard somebody say “I don’t know”? Was it last week? The week before? Last year? Have you ever heard somebody say they don’t know something? A complete understanding of reality is so far beyond our grasp that our impulse to confidently proclaim what is true about the last thing we’re asked is self-evidently absurd.
A friend put it bluntly in a text the other week: “…we’re all idiots walking around in bubbles of complete delusion.”
For the love of God, people. Life is hard enough. Let’s all admit to each other every once in a while when we don't know something.
A life has not been properly lived until at least a few hours of it have been spent in a YouTube rabbit hole watching videos of the late writer and debater Christopher Hitchens delivering his famous “hitchslap” to ill-informed debate opponents.
For those who don’t know him, Hitchens was one of history's most vocal critics of organized religion. Even his book titles left little to the imagination; “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” was one of his bestsellers.
Admire or despise him, “Hitch” ranks amongst the most interesting thinkers of the past century.
Buried in one of his shorter books is the following passage. It captures the man’s worldview beautifully and routinely gets me all sorts of juiced up:
Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.
Be warned: I intend to take this advice to heart as the battle against "Baby On Board" stickers continues.
How To Get Rich (Without Getting Lucky)
I am fairly certain that Twitter and the internet in general have slowly caused my brain to atrophy. My attention span and memory have clearly been harmed as my use of the internet has ramped up and it’s become increasingly obvious that social media is destroying my mental health and life in general.
But - BUT - every once in a while I’m reminded why I subject myself to such obvious harm. Once in a blue moon, I’m exposed to some amazing thinkers and ideas that I otherwise would have never stumbled upon.
A few weeks ago, it was a tweet storm titled “How To Get Rich (Without Getting Lucky)” from Angellist’s CEO Naval Ravikant.
It’s an interesting, albeit somewhat vague, framework for building wealth in the 21st century. A few thoughts in particular stuck out:
- “The Internet has massively broadened the possible space of careers. Most people haven't figured this out yet.”
- “Specific knowledge is knowledge that you cannot be trained for. If society can train you, it can train someone else, and replace you.”
- “Code and media are permissionless leverage. They're the leverage behind the newly rich. You can create software and media that works for you while you sleep.”
Here’s the full thread. Keep in mind that this is Twitter, so context and caveats are desperately lacking. Enjoy :)
Sociopaths, the Clueless, and Losers
Plagiarism warning: I’ve re-purposed Plato’s Allegory Of The Cave below.
Imagine being imprisoned and chained to a wall from birth. Your body and neck have been restrained your entire life and you’ve only ever been able to gaze directly at the wall in front of you.
Behind you is a fire that the prison guards use to cast shadows into your cell. You can’t see the fire nor the guards. You can only see the various shapes and objects that are projected onto your cell wall.
These shadows are all you ever see. They become your reality. You assign names to them. When the voices of the prison guards echo across the chamber, you assume they come from the shadows.
Then, one day, you break free.
As you race out of your cell, you quickly realize that there’s a lot more going on in the world than you thought. You notice the fire and realize that the shadows you've spent your entire life with aren't really a thing at all. They’re an illusion created by this bright thing bouncing off other stuff.
Your worldview is shattered. You may be tempted to retreat back into your cell where you at least thought you had a grasp on reality, but your eyes would have already adjusted to the light and it’d be hard to even see the shadows anymore.
So you sprint towards the exit and swing open the door.
For a moment, you're blinded. The sunlight is overwhelming. Slowly, though, you begin to see shapes. Then textures and colors. Then people and things. Eventually, you can see the sun itself.
You stand in awe. Reality is far different from anything you could have imagined back in your cell.
You rush back into the dark prison to liberate your fellow inmates, but you can’t see shit. Your eyes struggle to adjust to the darkness. The prisoners watch you stumble around blindly and assume that venturing outside harmed you.
“You escaped and now you’re blind, you idiot."
They refuse to follow you back out and willfully remain imprisoned.
At some point, we've all probably played the role of both the freed man who is revealed some truth and the prisoners who reject it as dangerous or wrong and cling to an existing worldview. Hell, in any given day we probably play both roles.
A few weeks ago, I read an essay that forced this unpleasant experience upon me and sent me into a stare-into-the-sun-and-face-reality experience.
The essay was a cynical take on the corporate world that shattered a few probably-naive views I hold (held). The spark notes are this:
- Most people in the corporate world are either sociopaths, clueless, or losers.
- Sociopaths ruthlessly climb to the top of any organization they're a part of. They often lack the hard skills that would make them valuable employees and are instead opportunists who excel at the power game.
- The Clueless faithfully carry out the plans of sociopaths. They are the middle manager-types who harbor a naive loyalty to an organization or system that is unlikely to actually give a shit about them.
- Losers are self-aware employees who lack the naivety of the Clueless and know they're stuck in a bad economic bargain. Instead of battling to escape like the Sociopaths, they instead attempt to minimize the level of effort required to keep some baseline of income.
The entire essay is designed as a brutally effective sledgehammer for crushing naivety. Maybe you'll hate it, maybe you'll love it, maybe all of it's wrong, but I present it here in its entirety: The Gervais Principle.
My eyes are still adjusting to the light.
As Promised, I Have Doubled Down On This Opinion
A couple of weeks ago, I publicly proclaimed that "Baby On Board" bumper stickers are clearly stupid and do nothing to keep babies safe.
I had done absolutely no research, my opinion was based entirely on my own reasoning, and I had no interest in actually developing an informed view. To make that clear, I titled my rant, “Strong Opinion On Completely Trivial Thing That I Am Unlikely To Change And Could Actually See Myself Doubling Down On If Challenged".
Hilariously, I was challenged.
I was told that "Baby On Board" stickers alert first responders to search a vehicle for a child in the event that there is an accident. Therefore, they are not dumb.
That actually sounded reasonable. Except, wait. What? Wouldn't first responders already search an entire vehicle after an accident anyway? They need a bumper sticker to tell them to?
I'll spare you the details, but it turns out that, indeed, "Baby On Board" stickers play zero role in an emergency. Or ever. They don't do anything. They continue to be dumb and my negative opinion of them has grown to near-religious levels of zeal.
I have done a ludicrous amount (approximately 10 minutes) of research now and it's already come at great personal expense. For example, I've been forced to read things like this gem from Quora contributor Christopher Richards:
Christopher, thank you for your contribution to this debate. Mine seems mild by comparison.
“We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.”
My name is Stew and I'm a procrastinator. I have spent untold hours in the unproductive purgatory that Tim Urban describes as "The Dark Playground":
While procrastinating the other night (by reading Hacker News), I stumbled across a website, Focusmate, that claims to help procrastinators get stuff done.
The problem they're trying to solve is simple: working on stuff alone sucks and is highly demotivating. Here's their bad-sounding solution that's actually amazing in practice:
Focusmate lets you schedule 50-minute video calls with complete strangers across the world who also want to get stuff done. You pick a time, get paired up with a rando, jump on a video call, tell the other person what you plan to accomplish, and you both get to work, keeping your partner's video stream in the top corner of your screen. At the end of the session, you quickly check in with each other and part ways.
For some, probably-baked-in-by-evolution reason, I felt weirdly motivated to accomplish what I had told my partner I planned to do. So far, each of my seven sessions have been unusually productive.
I am completely in love with this product. If you're feeling adventurous, here's the website.
It wasn’t that long ago that cutting-edge video games looked like this:
A few years later, they looked like this:
And now this:
It’s official: video game graphics no longer suck. And the same is true of nearly every popular application that we’ve historically used computers for. Simple tools like Microsoft Paint have evolved into far more capable products like Adobe Photoshop. Google Maps is exponentially better than any consumer mapping software from 15 years ago.
Up until the past couple of years, I figured that was pretty much the future of progress: computers would keep getting better and better at the stuff they were already used for. Occasionally, a product might come along that seemed entirely “new,” but it was most likely just a clever combination of existing technology (like the early version of Siri). Computers will get faster and cheaper, but at the core, I thought, they’d still have the same basic capabilities.
It turns out, though, that we recently crossed some threshold of computational-power-per-dollar that has enabled computers to do things that aren’t just exponential improvements to the stuff they could already do. Instead, computers are starting to do entirely novel things that lack a historical precedent.
Instead of rendering ever-better video game graphics, for example, a program can now learn how to play complex video games without any prior knowledge and destroy the best human players within a trivial amount of time.
One of the important, new things that computers can do is “learn” from enormous amounts of data. Historically, teaching a computer what The Incredible Hulk looked like or how to beat somebody at chess required writing out a bunch of complex rules for a program to follow - and oftentimes those rules performed worse than toddlers at the same task.
Today, we can show a computer a bunch of photos of The Incredible Hulk and it will start to “understand” the general characteristics of what makes The Hulk different from other stuff. Then, when it’s shown a photo it’s never seen before, it will be able to take a highly-accurate guess if The Hulk is in it or not. It can learn this skill in seconds.
If that doesn’t blow your mind, consider some research that came out from Google’s DeepMind this month. Researchers were able to create an AI program that could look at a single 2D image it had never seen before and “imagine” what the same scene would look like from different vantage points.
That is nuts. And it’s just a preview of what’s coming.
The DeepMind research in particular sheds light on how a “uniquely” human attribute - in this case, the ability to infer depth and space from a stationary view of a scene - can now be mimicked by a computer, albeit crudely.
In order to get a computer to learn, we must represent specific aspects of the world as data which it can interpret. The thing I under-appreciated until recently is just how many of our senses and skills can be represented as data:
- Sense of vision -> an array of various color values
- Written language -> sequences of characters
- Voice -> waveforms
- Certain emotions -> changes in pupil dilation that can be easily measured
Those are just a few wildly over-simplified examples. There's a far wider, and nuanced, range of human attributes that can be quantified in fairly precise data structures.
Now that we have machines capable of learning from this data, it seems likely that we are entering into an unprecedented moment in history. Our computers won't just be getting better at their old tricks, they'll be wrapping their tentacles around more and more previously-out-of-reach domains.
This isn't the essay where I say if that's terrifying or exciting or both, this is where I say something obvious, but worth repeating:
We are alive during a time of ludicrous technological change.