Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is yet another mind-expanding book:

“About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.

About 3.8. billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.

About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.

Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.”

Superforecasting

Just finished reading “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction” by Philip Tetlock. The book is similar to Nate Silver’s “The Signal and The Noise” in many ways.

I’d definitely recommend this one if you’re interested in the application of the scientific mindset to forecasting of future events.

Here is a quote to give you sense of what to expect:

“Suppose someone says, “Unfortunately, the popularity of soccer, the world’s favorite pastime, is starting to decline.” You suspect he is wrong. How do you question the claim?

Don’t even think of taking a personal shot like “You’re silly.” That only adds heat, not light. “I don’t think so” only expresses disagreement without delving into why you disagree. “What do you mean?” lowers the emotional temperature with a question but it’s much too vague. Zero in. You might say, “What do you mean by ‘pastime’?” or “What evidence is there that soccer’s popularity is declining? Over what time frame?” The answers to these precise questions won’t settle the matter, but they will reveal the thinking behind the conclusion so it can be probed and tested. Since Socrates, good teachers have practiced precision questioning, but still it’s often not used when it’s needed most.”

Chaos Monkeys

Enjoying reading Antonio‘s Chaos Monkeys now. The book is a rather honest account of launching and working at tech startups in the Valley.

Here is a quote on math behind Facebook growth, for example:

“The reality is that Facebook has been so successful, it’s actually running out of humans on the planet. Ponder the numbers: there are about three billion people on the Internet, where the latter is broadly defined as any sort of networked data, texts, browser, social media, whatever. Of these people, six hundred million are Chinese, and therefore effectively unreachable by Facebook. In Russia, thanks to Vkontakte and other copycat social networks, Facebook’s share of the country’s ninety million Internet users is also small, though it may yet win that fight.

That leaves about 2.35 billion people ripe for the Facebook plucking. While Facebook seems ubiquitous to the plugged-in, chattering classes, its usage is not universal among even entrenched Internet users. In the United States, for example, by far the company’s most established and sticky market, only three-quarters of Internet users are actively on FB. That ratio of FB to Internet user is worse in other countries, so even full FB saturation in a given market doesn’t imply total Facebook adoption. Let’s (very) optimistically assume full US-level penetration for any market. Without China and Russia, and taking a 25 percent haircut of people who’ll never join or stay (as is the case in the United States), that leaves around 1.8 billion potential Facebook users globally. That’s it. In the first quarter of 2015, Facebook announced it had 1.44 billion users. Based on its public 2014 numbers, FB is growing at around 13 percent a year, and that pace is slowing. Even assuming it maintains that growth into 2016, that means it’s got one year of user growth left in it, and then that’s it: Facebook has run out of humans on the Internet.

The company can solve this by either making more humans (hard even for Facebook), or connecting what humans there are left on the planet. This is why Internet.org exists, a vaguely public-spirited, and somewhat controversial, campaign by Facebook to wire all of India with free Internet, with regions like Brazil and Africa soon to follow. In early 2014 Facebook acquired a British aerospace firm, Ascenta, which specialized in solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles. Facebook plans on flying a Wi-Fi-enabled air force of such craft over the developing world, giving them Internet. Just picture ultralight carbon-fiber aircraft buzzing over African savannas constantly, while locals check their Facebook feeds as they watch over their herds.”

Waking Up by Sam Harris, my notes

I just wanted to share some excerpts from Waking Up by Sam Harris that I listened to a couple of months ago. It is a great book that covers so many topics: mindfulness, meditation, neuroscience, cognition, emotions and others. It is worth reading in its entirety and I am personally planning to re-read it. So here are some notes:

“Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”

“There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds—and lives—are largely shaped by how we use them.”

“My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.”

“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.”

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“How Google Works” by Eric Schmidt notes

How Google Works” by Eric Schmidt, despite being quite self-congratulatory and maybe even prone to confirmation bias, is full of inspirational ideas and bids of practical wisdom to learn from. I took a few (ok, quite a few) notes on smart creatives, decision making, hiring, innovation, strategy, career, management and even managing email.

On smart creatives:

“And who, exactly, is this smart creative? A smart creative has deep technical knowledge in how to use the tools of her trade and plenty of hands-on experience. In our industry, that means she is most likely a computer scientist, or at least understands the tenets and structure of the systems behind the magic you see on your screens every day. But in other industries she may be a doctor, designer, scientist, filmmaker, engineer, chef, or mathematician. She is an expert in doing. She doesn’t just design concepts, she builds prototypes. She is analytically smart. She is comfortable with data and can use it to make decisions. She also understands its fallacies and is wary of endless analysis. Let data decide, she believes, but don’t let it take over.

She is business smart. She sees a direct line from technical expertise to product excellence to business success, and understands the value of all three. She is competitive smart. Her stock-in-trade starts with innovation, but it also includes a lot of work. She is driven to be great, and that doesn’t happen 9-to-5. She is user smart. No matter the industry, she understands her “get it right the next time around. She is self-directed creative. She doesn’t wait to be told what to do and sometimes ignores direction if she doesn’t agree with it. She takes action based on her own initiative, which is considerable.

She is open creative. She freely collaborates, and judges ideas and analyses on their merits and not their provenance. If she were into needlepoint, she would sew a pillow that said, “If I give you a penny, then you’re a penny richer and I’m a penny poorer, but if I give you an idea, then you will have a new idea but I’ll have it too.” Then she would figure out a way to make the pillow fly around the room and shoot lasers.

She is thorough creative. She is always on and can recite the details, not because she studies and memorizes, but because she knows them. They are her details. She is communicative creative. She is funny and expresses herself with flair and even charisma, either one-to-one or one-to-many.”

 

HIPPOs:

“Hippopotamuses are among the deadliest animals, faster than you think and capable of crushing (or biting in half) any enemy in their path. Hippos are dangerous in companies too, where they take the form of the Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion. When it comes to the quality of decision-making, pay level is intrinsically irrelevant and experience is valuable only if it is used to frame a winning argument. Unfortunately, in most companies experience is the winning argument. We call these places “tenurocracies,” because power derives from tenure, not merit. It reminds us of our favorite quote from Jim Barksdale, erstwhile CEO of Netscape: “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”

When you stop listening to the hippos, you start creating a meritocracy, which our colleague Shona Brown concisely describes as a place where “it is the quality of the idea that matters, not who suggests it.” Sounds easy, but of course it isn’t. Creating a meritocracy requires equal participation by both the hippo, who could rule the day by fiat, and the brave smart creative, who risks getting trampled as she stands up for quality and merit.”

 

On technical insights as a driver of innovation:

“Bet on technical insights, not market research. Product leaders create product plans, but those product plans often (usually!) lack the most important component: What is the technical insight upon which those new features, products, or platforms will be built? A technical insight is a new way of applying technology or design that either drives down the cost or increases the functions and usability of the product by a significant factor. The result is something that is better than the competition in a fundamental way. The improvement is often obvious; it doesn’t take a lot of marketing for customers to figure out that this product is different from everything else.

For example, at that time Google was experimenting in applying some of our expertise from online advertising to other advertising markets, including print, radio, and TV. These were clever efforts, supported by smart people, but they lacked that fundamental technical insight that would shift the cost-performance curve non-incrementally and provide significant differentiation. All three ultimately failed. And when we look back at other Google products that didn’t make it (iGoogle, Desktop, Notebook, Sidewiki, Knol, Health, even the popular Reader), they all either lacked underlying technical insights from the outset, or the insights upon which they were based became dated as the Internet evolved.”

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Good vs Bad PM by Ben Horowitz

There was a mention in the “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” of “Good Product Manager – Bad Product Manager” document written by Ben Horowitz himself during his tenure as Opsware CEO. So I’ve decided to look it up. In my experience as a brand manager in consumer goods companies, characteristics and behaviors that make a good PM in tech are very consistent with those that make a good brand manager in CPG or even a general manager in general.

Here is the full version found on khoslaventures.com worth looking at:

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What Technology Wants Notes

I enjoyed reading Ben Casnocha’s notes from What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly and took a couple of notes myself:

On inter-dependancies:

Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels.

On evolution of the scientific method:

The classic double-blind experiment, for instance, in which neither the subject nor the tester is aware of what treatment is being given, was not invented until the 1950s. The placebo was not used in practice until the 1930s. It is hard to imagine science today without these methods.

On games:

The cybernetician Heinz von Foerster called this approach the Ethical Imperative, and he put it this way: “Always act to increase the number of choices.” The way we can use technologies to increase choices for others is by encouraging science, innovation, education, literacies, and pluralism. In my own experience this principle has never failed: In any game, increase your options.

On sacrifices as a form of  investment:

As Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City (about Mumbai), says, “Why would anyone leave a brick house in the village with its two mango trees and its view of small hills in the East to come here?” Then he answers: “So that someday the eldest son can buy two rooms in Mira Road, at the northern edges of the city. And the younger one can move beyond that, to New Jersey. Discomfort is an investment.

On using older technology as a statement:

Who would have guessed anyone would burn candles when lightbulbs are so cheap? But burning candles is now a mark of luxuriant uselessness. Some of our hardest-working technology today will achieve beautiful uselessness in the future. Perhaps a hundred years from now people will carry around “phones” simply because they like to carry things, even though they may be connected to the net by something they wear.

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Quora: ask any question

I could not find enough time to post here recently. I certainly have been doing more reading than writing. So, I thought why not to share some of things I read? And I decided to tell you about Quora.

As you most probably already know, Quora is a questions-answers website which succeeded in doing what Google and multiple other companies failed at: provide a decent quality of responses.

Several months ago they even created their own book “Best of Quora 2010-2012“, compiled of best answers, available for free download. It covers quite a range of topics. From Steve Jobs to moldy cheese, from neurological basis of curiosity to Jay-Z. I hope to find time and selectively read the most intriguing ones.

quora

In a meanwhile, here is the short list of questions on the website itself that I found noteworthy:

Add me if you are there.

Moonwalking with Einstein review: memory & mnemonics

I’ve just finished listening to an interesting audiobook about memory and mnemonic techniques: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Author is a young journalist who decided to try all the memory improvement techniques himself but remain sceptical and objective while doing so. He talks about memory itself and the way it was influenced by spread of written language and by technology. Than, he tells us stories about people with extraordinarily good memory and amnesiacs, about people who had an ordinary memory but became memory champion and about mnemonic techniques they used.

moonwalking ith-einstein the art and science of remembering everything by joshua foer

 

Joshua begins his quest with a totaly ordinary, if not mediocre, memory. Bus after long preparation and work with best so-called “mental athletes” wins one of US memory champtionships. Although he himself acknoledges the fact that most of techniques he learned are useless in day-to-day life, I actually extracted a lot of intersting and useful ideas from the book. And this is what I would like to share with you.

 

Interesting facts and ideas

  • Memory becomes highly underestimated nowadays because of all the various ways to store information “externally”. But in fact, the better we remember our life, the more connections we can make. Memory is also necessary to understand and appreciate many things in life. For example, a person who never read or heard anything about China would not get as much culturally from the trip there as somebody who studied history and architecture of this country for a couple of months.
  • One of the people Joshua interviewed for the book tried to increase “subjective” (perceived) life expectancy by improving his memory. The idea is that the more events you remember the longer life seems to be.
  • Best chess-players don’t really evaluate all the possible moves logically. Instead, they recognize familiar patterns from other games.
  • Cab drivers in London pass obligatory and very demanding exam called “The Knowledge”. It has been found that those who passed it after months of preparation have larger brain region that is responsible for orientation in space. Interestinlgy, brains of “memory champions” are actually quite typical.
  • Odyssey and Iliad were initially created the way that made it easier to remember it and paraphrase verbally instead of writing down.
  • We can remember almost unlimited number of pictures. At least the fact whether we’ve seen one or not. That is why many memory techniques revolve around transforming other types of information into visual images.
  • Also, Joshua acquaints us with several interesting, although ambigous personalities, such as Daniel Tammet, Ed Cooke, Tony Buzan and others.

Mnemonic techniques:

  • Some savants naturally use synesthesia (mixing visual, audiotory and other types of perceptions) to enchance remembering and learning through associations.
  • “Chunking” is a technique of breaking information into smaller pieces. For example, it is easier to remember a phone number when it is presented as 12-34-56 than when it is presented as 123456.
  • Major system. To use this technique, one should use the same consonants for certain numbers. Then, to remember a number, one uses these consonants to form words, which are supposedly easier to remember, by inserting vowels.
  • Memory palace. Images are placed in a certain space (appartment, city route or real imagined palace). The more absurd, shiny, sexual and animate the images the better.
  • Speech preparation. Try to remember key topics to cover in your speech by visualizing them.
  • Remembering texts. Try to feel empathy with an author, to resonate emotionally with a text.
  • Deliberate practice: here Joshua gives just another interpretation of the same old study, which almost everybody mentioned recently. The basic conclusion is that people who are best at something did not necessarily spent more time practicing it. But they practised differently.
  • In essense, deliberate practise is  an effort to consciously improve one’s level of mastery instead of stopping at the minimum acceptable level (“ok zone”). For example, one might try to type faster than he or she would normally do in order to progress.
  •  Deliberate practice also comprises of constant adjustment to feedback and focusing on the most difficult aspects. For example, top violinists practiced most difficult pieces instead of just playing what they already know. Top chess-players re-played best chess games in their heads trying to understand the reasons behind each move. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin learned to write essays by first attempting to cover a certain topic by himself and then comparing the texts to those of best writers.
  • Person – action – object system. According to this mnemonic system, one should come up with a person, action and object for each of 100 digits: from 00 to 99. Then, these “PAOs” are used to form sentences in order to remember long lists of numbers.
  • Remembering names. Try to come up with a meaningful association. For example, nobody of people studied could remember name “Baker” (no associations) but majority remembered profession “baker” (a lot of associations).
  • The reason why people sometimes get an impression that times flies faster might be related to the fact that our life becomes more boring and we get fewer new experiences. In other words, we have less interesting things to remember. So, make your life more memorable!
  • Practical advice to remember things in day-to-day life: pay attention. For example, focus on remembering that name instead of just waiting for your time to introduce yourself.
However, it is less clear how to apply it all to learning things that might actually be useful, such as grammar rules, math formulas or just life experiences. Any ideas?
Overall, there are not so many practically applicable things in the book but it is still very interesting to read.
Here is the short interview with an author that covers many of the topics from the book:

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

Feynman is one of the brightest physicists of the 20th century who also happened to be a talented lecturer and an author of a book which is fun to read. Here are some excerpts from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” that I found interesting:

Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman - book review & quotes

On freedom:

So I have just one wish for you–the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel heed by a need to maintain your position In the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

Isn’t it a modern luxury that very few of us can afford?

 

On pointless communication

When it came time to evaluate the conference at the end, the others told how much they got out of it, how successful it was, and so on. When they asked me, I said, “This conference was worse than a Rorschach test: There’s a meaningless inkblot, and the others ask you what you think you see, but when you tell them, they start arguing with you!

 

On mindfulness and watching your thoughts become dreams:

I also noticed that as you go to sleep the ideas continue, but they become less and less logically interconnected. You don’t notice that they’re not logically connected until you ask yourself, “What made me think of that?” and you try to work your way back, and often you can’t remember what the hell did make you think of that!

So you get every illusion of logical connection, but the actual fact is that the thoughts become more and more cockeyed until they’re completely disjointed, and beyond that, you fall asleep.

After four weeks of sleeping all the time, I wrote my theme, and explained the observations I had made. At the end of the theme I pointed out that all of these observations were made while I was watching myself fall asleep, and I don’t really know what it’s like to fall asleep when I’m not watching myself. I concluded the theme with a little verse I made up, which pointed out this problem of introspection:

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