Life is fractal, but markets are square

I recently read Venkat’s synopsis of the book Seeing like a state, which I followed up by an excellent blog post titled The Meridian of Her Greatness. Venkat challenged people to summarize the most important ideas from that post in a tweetstorm. He said if it gets more than 100 likes, on Twitter he’ll give away $1. I thought it was a fair deal, so here’s my attempt to distill some of the ideas into a visual essay.

1/ When humans wield their power in the world, they are limited by the linear nature of their thinking. The best example of this linearization is the top-down planning of modern suburbs. Contrast this with how nations and states emerged in a bottom-up fashion. ...  Read the entire post →

What Gita teaches us and what it doesn’t

1/ I recently finished Menon’s translation of Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of Hindus. There’s a lot to like about it, but it leaves a few issues unresolved.

Here are my notes.

2/ The story revolves around the warrior Arjuna who faces conflict during a war with his cousins. He simply cannot bring himself to kill the people he grew up with. So he tells his charioteer, Krishna, that he’d rather die than go to war.

3/ This conflict is used as a backdrop by Krishna, who actually is an incarnation of God, to reveal the truth of the world to Arjuna. The ideas and concepts in Gita are consistent with other Hindu philosophies and ideas.

4/ The key philosophical teaching in Gita is that the human soul is one with Brahmana, the ultimate God. However, that soul is embodied and unaware that it is one with God.

5/ So, the body must go through Samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth until it realizes its oneness. Gita stresses that the real condition is of non-separateness. That only Brahmana exists that’s beyond time, space and quality.

6/ It’s only because of Maya, the illusion, that it seems reality consists of separate beings (souls). This idea was expressed in Ramayana as well when Hanuman meets Ram.

7/ Krishna tells Arjun that each soul has a karmic accounting going on. If after death, there’s positive karma, souls are sent to heaven where they enjoy until they end up using all their balance and then they’re sent back to the Earth.

8/ If the karmic balance is negative, souls get reborn as ‘lower’ creatures.

9/ The only way to get free of this constant cycle of birth and rebirth is by

seeking a zero balance of karma while being alive ...  Read the entire post →

Notes from ‘Nonzero: the logic of human destiny’

I make notes of books that really impact my thinking. Earlier, I made notes from The Elephant in the Brain and Skin in the Game. This time I make notes from a book that traces the arc of human history. My notes are not verbatim (unless quoted). It’s mostly what I found illuminating.

1/ Here are my notes from ‘s book – Nonzero: the logic of human destiny. I enjoyed the book very much.

The basic premise of the book is that history has a direction which favors co-operation and non-zero sum games, and that causes an increase in complexity.

2/ Starting from the first replicating molecule which co-operated with an outer layer to form first proto-cell, evolutionary and cultural history is full of examples where two entities come together to survive and progress a lot more than they would have done individually.

3/ This co-operative entity fares much better than two individual entities because of specialization. If two entities are in the same boat – that they win together or lose together – then trust is implicit.

4/ In a non-zero sum game, trust causes entities to focus on what they do best. For example, eukaryotic cells – the ones animals and plants have – emerged when two proto-cells merged, and one took the role of energy generator (mitochondria), the other specialized in protection.

5/ Some scientists believe that even nucleus in a cell is a result of an early cell merging with another cell. So M&A is not a recent phenomenon, entities have been merging because of common interests ever since life started. ...  Read the entire post →

Notes on entropy

In my experience, entropy as an idea is generally misunderstood. Like many, I had a gut level understanding of “entropy is disorder”. It’s easy to misapply that intuition and draw wrong conclusions about areas far removed from physics (business, economies, cultures, etc.) Remember: thinking in analogies is dangerous?

So, I decided to dive deeper into entropy and here are my notes on the topic (as a series of easily digestible tweets).

1/ A short thread on ENTROPY, and its misapplications

2/ First and foremost, know that there are two different things that are called entropy: one is thermodynamic entropy and the other one is information entropy. Whenever someone is talking about entropy, ask which one.

3/ Thermodynamic entropy: it started with Carnot and Clausius, who defined it as the amount of energy/work absorbed by a system per unit of temperature

4/ Actually, more precisely thermodynamic entropy was defined at a constant temperature and in a reversible process. Roughly it translated to how much energy can go in the system without raising its temperature ...  Read the entire post →

Notes from The Elephant in the Brain

1/ Reading @robinhanson and @kevinsimler new book ‘Elephant in the brain’. Here are my notes on big ideas from the book.

via official book website

2/ Human intelligence evolved as a result of arms race of getting ahead in social situations where two contrasting incentives always existed: to co-operate or to compete.

3/ Unlike chimps where hierarchy is strictly from alpha male to least powerful individuals, language allowed humans to form coalitions and keep most aggressive individuals in check. These coalitions are where laws and norms come from

4/ Since norms cannot be exactly specified, human brains evolved to find subtle ways to work around them (lying) and to detect others working their ways around them (detecting lying)

5/ Since humans have to co-operate but others suspect that our intentions are not true, we evolved honest signals such as body language, shame, guilt, etc.

6/ Since other humans can detect our dishonest intentions, lying to others is difficult but we still have to find ways to take opportunities to exploit social situations to get ahead – to get sex, status, power.

7/ Our brains evolved to lie to themselves in order to give honest signals in social situations. That is why in order to blend in a social society, it’s not just enough to lie that you believe in god, you have to actually believe that (taking help from all sorts of cognitive biases)

8/ Since we act and verbalize conscious thoughts in social situations, our brains give censored version of reality to consciousness that mostly contains info that makes us feel good about ourselves (such that others mistake us for actually being that good)

9/ This last idea is radical.

This means all our conscious thoughts (and ideas about ourselves) are hopelessly twisted ...  Read the entire post →

Notes from Inverted Passion Unconference in Bangalore [March ’18]

After doing the first unconference in Pune, I and Roby did the second one in Bangalore on March 11th 2018. These are my notes from the event.

Fireside chat with Kunal Shah, Founder of Freecharge (sold for $400mn to SnapDeal)

Here’s the entire audio transcript on Soundcloud. My key insights and learnings from the conversation (we were taking whisky shots while chatting, so when you hear me say ‘shots’ you do the math). Also, eChai has collated many people’s tweets into one page (so

you can read everyone else’s insights from our chat ...  Read the entire post →

Notes from ‘Skin in the game’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the famous author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, has come up with a new book titled Skin in the Game. I finished it over the weekend and here are my notes.

My sofa, my finger, Taleb’s book

Insights (and points I agree with him on)

Human systems are systems within systems, interacting in complex ways. No article / paper / logical argument can capture all interactions of such systems and their evolution over a non-trivial amount of time. So one shot, large scale interventions (such as invasion, UBI, CRISPR) are extremely dangerous because we now have people in power who can order large scale tech-driven interventions across a large section of society.

– People with fuck you money should call out famous or powerful people when they are wrong

A scientific result takes a slice of the world that’s impossible in reality. Our real world is dynamic, full of interactions and any static slice necessarily misses that

Time is the ultimate test of robustness.

It’s safer to describe the past than to predict the future, but if you must predict it, you must share its downside

– When a thing is described, the limitations imposed by the need to hold that concept in mind and communicate it to others isn’t generally recognised as limitations. In reality, the thing (say voters in Bihar) has a history, embedded in other things, interacts with other things and has goals that evolve that itself isn’t aware of. Try communicating all that to others.

– Our perception of roles that people are playing in a system are usually static and short sighted.

We forget. But history doesn’t care. ...  Read the entire post →

Notes from Berlin on crypto and blockchain

I attended Blockstack Berlin event yesterday and here are my notes. In case you’re not very familiar with the cryptocurrencies or blockchain space, I recommend going through my reading list on bitcoin and ethereum first.

The Agenda

What attracted me to travel from Pune, India to Berlin, Germany was the impressive list of speakers. I was specifically interested in listening to Edward Snowden (the famous whistleblower), Nick Sbazo (creator of bitgold, precursor to bitcoin), and Albert Wenger (author of world after capital).

Here’s the full agenda:

My notes

These notes are not comprehensive; they are the ideas and perspectives that caught my attention. I’m pretty sure like last year, Blockstack this year too will release videos from all talks on their youtube channel. So keep an eye on it.

1/ Founder of CoinCenter – a non-profit educating governments on bitcoin, @valkenburgh said the reason blockchain and crypto are important is because Internet is an adversarial environment. You can believe that people are generally good, but you have to design open, decentralized systems with the assumption that malicious entities exist and will try their best to take personal advantage.

2/ @valkenburgh recommended reading: A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. I didn’t know John Perry Barlow – founder of Electronic Freedom Foundation was also a lead singer for The Grateful Dead.

3/ Technology is not inherently good or bad – it is an expression of human will and values. The same technology (say Internet) can be used for good (freedom) or for slavery (mass propaganda). Technology is neutral, said @valkenburgh.

4/ Cofounder of Blockstack, @ryanshea said that the mission of Blockstack is to enable these four properties of decentralized apps (Dapps): a) runs on device of your choice; b) lets you bring your ID; c) lets you bring your data; d) lets you bring your assets.

5/ @Muneeb, cofounder of Blockstack, talked about the recurring trend in computing: centralization/decentralization (mainframes -> PC -> cloud computing -> decentralized computing). Note to myself: why does this bundling or unbundling happens in waves? This trend is also central thesis of The Master Switch by @superwuster

6/ @Muneeb suggested that a developer selecting a platform for developing decentralized apps should ask these questions: a) can it scale to millions of users? b) is it secure? (what’s the attack surface); c) does it have developer tools? I’ll add another one to the list: d) does it solve a real user problem?

7/ @jutta_steiner defined web 3.0 (that’s what everyone is calling decentralized web now) as reliable means of making applications available under adverse conditions – both intentional and unintentional.

8/ @santisiri, founder of democracy.earth gave a very interesting talk on nation-states and crypto. He defined nation-states as monopolies of money and force that are limited by geography.

9/ @santisiri said that democracy is in decay due to conflict between cloud (corporations) and land (nation-states).

10/ @deseventral, cofounder of orchidprotocol – marketplace for VPNs, says that a surveillance state is successful if its citizens behave as if surveillance is everywhere (even if it’s not). He says people in regions of China are stopped where police check their phones if they are using any unauthorized apps. Scary!

11/ @valkenburgh introduced the audience to the Goodharth’s law which says: ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure‘. For example, GDP includes military spending so measuring GDP growth alone isn’t good. Similarly focus on marketcap for crypto is bad.

12/ Then there was investor panel with @AriDavidPaul , @andy_bromberg, @richardmuirhead and @br_ttany. Major insights: what’s changed is that with tokenizing open source, value capture in open source has become directly possible now. That’s the interest of VCs in crypto space.

13/ A lot of variables in cryptospace are unknown: “there’s no single utility app in crypto right now”. There’s no clarity on the total addressable market. Also, there’s tragedy of commons in decentralization: “the more decentralized an app is, less incentivized is each individual to improve it”.

14/ Network effects in protocols mean that value may not accrue to initial founding team / project. As projects fork, the value can accrue to even 20-30 projects. This is what VCs have to be cognizant of.

15/ “When you’re investing in open source network effects, you are asking whether network effects can sustain until switching costs become high that users don’t switch to a forked version“.

16/ @nickszabo4 defined markets as a network of contracts. As markets expand –> greater division of labour -> greater productivity. This is why markets drive economic growth.

17/ Markets have caused all economic and material growth of the modern century. @NickSbazo4 made me think that although communism sounds great in theory and resonates with intuition, it had horrific consequences. Our intuition about what’s right and wrong may not turn out to be right on deeper thinking. This idea is the basis of moral reasoning.

18/ @NickSbazo4 key message: trust scales poorly and trusted 3rd parties are security and lawyer magnets. The design objectives of networks online should be to minimize need to trust any single party.

19/ @NickSbazo4 also said that governments and institutions have argument surface which allow many different entities to slow down decisions. This is the fundamental tradeoff of speed v/s reversibility of decisions that Jeff Bezos also talks about as Type 1 and Type 2 decisions.

20/ @starkness, founder of the lightning network (that enables scalability and speed on bitcoin) said that bitcoin is like savings account while lightning is like checking account on top of it. Bitcoin blockchain is increasingly becoming the settlement layer while other protocols like lightning enable more interesting stuff to happen on the protocol.

At #blockstackberlin it’s hard to differentiate what’s company, what’s a project and what’s a movement is hard to make. They all seem to be blurring for good.

Excitement-level-for-this: 90%
Confidence: 75% ...  Read the entire post →

Good engineers make terrible leaders

Yuval Noah Harari in his highly celebrated book Sapiens says that human values are shared myths and that there is no objective basis in humanism. I agree with him.

In several separate exchanges on Twitter, I’ve debated the claim that technology has caused progress in human society or that there’s never been a better time to live than now.

I personally agree with the evidence that’s presented in favor of progress: infant mortality rate has been reducing, education levels have gone up and poverty has been reduced world over. (I follow Human Progress handle on Twitter, believe in Effective Altruism and donate to GiveWell’s recommended charities).

But I also hold two other views:

  • a) the claim that human society has made progress (because of tech or anything else) cannot be made objectively;
  • b) it’s meaningless to say human society had made progress without stating areas that you’re considering and not considering when it comes to assessing such progress.

This perspective is not unique and has been discussed by social scientists and philosophers for a long time. However, the paper

Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning ...  Read the entire post →