What I’ve Been Reading

Books I’ve read, complete since 2016 (and whatever I could remember of 2015). If I read it more than once, it appears more than once. I’m not sure why I decided to post this publicly.

2015

  • A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgress
  • The Art of Thinking Clearly
  • Armidillo
  • A Rough Guide to the Future – Christopher Lovelock
  • Fundamentals of Ethics
  • The Four Hour Work Week – Tim Ferriss
  • The Four Hour Body – Tim Ferriss
  • Fluent Forever – Gabriel Wyner
  • The Most Good You Can Do – Peter Singer
2016
  • The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
  • Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
  • Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely
  • The Obstacle is the Way – Ryan Holiday
  • Ego is the Enemy – Ryan Holiday
  • Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
  • The black Swan – Nicholas Taleb
  • The Art of Learning – Joshua Waitzkin
  • The Four Hour Chef – Tim Ferriss
  • Vagabonding – Rolf Potts
  • Tribes – Seth Godin
  • The Purple Cow – Seth Godin
  • #AskGaryVee – Gary Vaynerchuck
  • The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
  • Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
  • The Twits – Roald Darhl
  • The dispatcher – John Scalzi
  • The Effective Altruism Handbook – Various
  • Zero to one – Peter Thiel
  • Gratitude -Oliver Sacks
  • Deep Work – Cal Newport
  • Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
  • Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (1) – Eleizer Yudkowsky
  • HJPEV and the Professor’s Games (2) – Eleizer Yudkowsky
2017
  • HJPEV and the Shadows of Death (3) –  Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • HJPEV and the Phoenix’s Call (4) –  Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • HJPEV and the Last Enemy (5) –  Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • HJPEV and the Philosopher’s Stone (6) – Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • David and Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell
  • Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! – Richard Feynman
  • So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport
  • Rationality from AI to Zombies Book I: Map and Territory –  Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • Do Human Kinds Best Days Lie Ahead – Matt Ridley, Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker & Alain de Botton
  • Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win – Leif Babin & Jocko Willink
  • The Art of Learning – Josh Watzkin
  • The First 20 Hours – Josh Kaufman
  • The Lean Startup – Eric Ries
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari
  • Rework – David Heinemeier Hansson & Jason Fried
  • Drive – Daniel Pink
  • Anything You Want – Derek Sivers
  • The Course of Love – Alain DeBotton
  • Vagabonding – Rolf Potts
  • A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley
  • The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman
  • Mastery by Robert Green
2018
  • On Writing Well – William Zinsser
  • The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin
  • Becoming a Straight A Student – Cal Newport
  • How to Win at College – Cal Newport
  • 7 Must Know Strategies to Learn Anything Faster – Scott Young
  • Tools of Titans – Tim Ferriss
  • Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life – Peter Godfrey-Smith
  • A Slim Guide to Semantics – Paul Elborne
  • Consciousness: The Science of Subjectivity – Antti Revonsuo
  • Artemis Fowl – Eoin Colfer
  • Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Insident – Eoin Colfer
  • Mind: a Brief Introduction – John R Searle
  • The Making of a Philosopher – Colin McGuinn
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (Movie edition)
  • Conspiracy – Ryan Holiday
  • Strategy: an Introduction to Game Theory – Joel Watson
  • A very short introduction to Global Economic History – Robert C. Allen
  • Herland – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Poetry of the Universe: a Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos – Robert Osserman
  • The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin
2019
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe  – Douglas Adams
  • Life, the Universe and Everything  – Douglas Adams
  • So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish  – Douglas Adams
  • Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! – Richard Feynman
  • An Introduction to Decision Theory – Martin Peterson
  • The Art of Learning – Joshua Waitzkin
  • Radical Markets – Eric Posner and Glen Weyl
  • Normative Uncertainty – William MacAskill
  • Wittgenstein – A.C. Grayling  (Past Masters Series)
  • The Time Machine – H. G. Wells
  • Where should we begin – Esther Perel
  •  Stubborn Attachments – Tyler Cowen
  • Siddhartha – Herman Hessie
  • Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman
  • Normal People – Sally Rooney
  • Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  • On What Matters (Part 1 of Volume 1) – Derek Parfit
Last updated 18/10/2019

Radical Democracy

How can governance represent the needs of the people?  How can governments disseminate power, and give equal consideration of interests? One proposal is quadratic voting, outlined in the book “Radical Markets”. The authors, Eric Posner and Glen Weyl, propose “Quadratic Voting”. This proposal replaces ‘one person one vote’. It replaces equal influence in choosing governments with equal influence on governance. Equal influence rather than equal say.

Under quadratic voting, everyone receives an equal number of voting credits. These credits can buy influence. Raising an issue for consideration or voting for it once raised. Or voting against an awful proposal, as the case may be. We would all have the same number of voting credits. We could all use them how we like. Perhaps climate change moves you. Or marriage equality. Or mental health policy. Or any number of things. You could your influence on what is most important to you.

Consider our current system. The passionate minority often overwhelmed by the disinterested masses. For example, a new healthcare program might benefit rural communities. Perhaps they know this. This program deserves political support. Like any issue, I expect most voters are unaware or indifferent. How could such a program find political support? In our current system, the voices of any minority drown in a sea of indifference. But the voices of those affected are exactly the voices we should listen to. Quadratic voting would give any group the power to influence the issues that matter most.

The discerning reader may already see a problem. The passionate minority can always overwhelm the disinterested majority. They have too much power. Some policies are justified by a small but significant benefit spread across millions. Quadratic Voting seems to imply small groups benefiting at a significant cost to the rest of us. Imagine a tariff that benefits a handful of producers but raised the price for everyone else. Such a policy would be harmful, on balance. In general, we want to create more benefit and less harm, in these situations we don’t want any motivated group to win.

There is a simple solution to this problem. We give everyone an equal ability to impact everyone else. Thus, the cost of voting should reflect the impact of voting. I first imagined one credit buying one vote. But the cost of one vote should be the cost inflicted on others. Economists have calculated this cost as the square of the number of votes. Hence “quadratic” voting. The cost of one vote is one credit, but the cost of five votes is twenty-five credits. This solution gives equal voting credits, but make the cost of voting a square function of votes. The passionate minority can still win where they should win. But where they shouldn’t win, they won’t.

The proposal helps another problem. The current voter must vote on every issue. And on average, this voter is uninspired and confused.  But I care about certain issues, and so does the faceless voter. I am motivated to understand those issues which I deem important. Most people are like me: uninspired and misinformed on all but a select few topics. When we exert influence on what matters to us, we exert influence within our circle of expertise. Quadratic Voting increases the expertise of voters, without any extra work.

That’s it. We should all have equal impact on governance. Quadratic voting plays to the strength of democracy, disseminating power to the people. It mitigates the weaknesses: allowing informed influence and appropriate force for minority voices. Because of my own disposition, I would add a hedge. Even the best theoretical system may have hidden practical problems.  We should always trial changes on a small scale, finding out where the territory doesn’t fit the map.

To find out more check out the book, or this episode of the 80,000 hours podcast with Rob Wiblin

Image from http://radicalmarkets.com

Fantastic Beasts and Where they Came From

Sitting in the botanic gardens, hungover, watching the ducks skim across the water, waiting for the revival we knew only coffee could bring. Attempting a normal conversation. “Have you heard the theory that octopuses are aliens that arrived on a comet?”, my friend asked. I hadn’t.

We examined this strange theory. It apparently relied on the absurdness of octopodes, fantastic creatures with distributed brains, unlikely intelligence, and the ability to squeeze and escape through a hole as small as their eye (see below). The theory was equally absurd, can this creature really be explained by accidental intergalactic space travel?


What else could give an explanation? Evolution? Yes. Perhaps tiny mutations, which help an organism survive, propagate through the species. Millions of tiny changes accumulate as one animal evolves into another. The fossil record supports these small intermediary steps on the evolutionary path to perfection, I thought, though I couldn’t quite remember.


This alternative helps clarify the space-octopus theory. We have a chain of intermediates before modern cephalopods. So, either the theory claims that the original ancestors of modern octopi arrived on a comet, and then evolved from there. Or, perhaps it claims all the intermediate species arrived by comet (at different times though, to stagger the fossil record appropriately).


Either way, the intergalactic theory is a dud. If all the intermediates traveled too, then we would need much more evidence (can they even survive in space?). If it was just the original ancestor, then evolution does the bulk of the explanatory work, and we are left wondering what motivates the other story. We at first thought this theory explained this strange and squishy beast, but now it only explains a much less absurd relative. Either way, this conspiracy has little explanatory purchase.

Cover image: Wikimedia

The Missing Puzzle Piece

Recently, I decided to go back to basics, and learn mathematics from the ground up. You will find that post here. Calculus was first on the list. I’m taking the MIT course in single variable calculus, it’s available for free online.

It’s tempting to try and jump a few rungs. We understandably want to learn the fancy applications, the impressive stuff. Instead, I’ve chosen a more mundane route. Getting a strong handle on the basics. Understanding deeply the foundations is underrated. Josh waitzkin, a chess “prodigy” and martial artist, puts it brilliantly in his book:

“[We] began our study with a barren chessboard. We took on positions of reduced complexity and clear principles. Our first focus was king and pawn against king—just three pieces on the table… Layer by layer we built up my knowledge and my understanding of how to transform axioms into fuel for creative insight… This method of study gave me a feeling for the beautiful subtleties of each chess piece, because in relatively clear-cut positions I could focus on what was essential. I was also gradually internalizing a marvellous methodology of learning—the play between knowledge, intuition, and creativity.”  

Josh Waitzkin

Today I began with calculus, a subject that I’ve often touched on but never deeply understood. What is a derivative? Well (on the geometric interpretation) it’s the general formula for slope of the tangents to a curve. What is a tangent to a curve? Well if you take two points on a curve, and take the slope of that line, then push the points arbitrarily close together (take the limit as the difference between the points approaches 0), that’s a tangent line. I was beginning to get into the flow of the lecture. I already know what a derivative is, but I never had such a clear handle on why the formula is how it is. Then we started to solve the standard formula for taking the derivative of y=x^n. Although common place, I’ve never derived it myself. I’m feeling excited by now.

Suddenly, the flow stops. “…by the binomial theorem we have such and such”, the lecturer continues. I couldn’t remember the binomial formula. Worse, I didn’t understand it in this context. I didn’t know why the terms were exactly that way, and how the lecturer had found them. And a “whole load of junk” was a mystery to me. What was it? and Why was it junk?

I paused the lecture and jumped on to another website. Time to find the root of this problem. I watched some videos on the binomial theorem. I mostly understood, but not quite. There was a funny combinatoric thing, which was familiar previous study, but I couldn’t exactly remember it. I went back further, building up my understanding. First permutations, then combinatorics, then back to binomials. Then to pascals triangle and binomials, and linking all three.

When I switched back to the lecture, I understood.

The once formidable formula looked mundane. I knew what the pieces were, and why. I understood what the “junk” was, and how the junk would disappear in the final solution. When I got to the end, I quickly finished off my notes, replicating the proof from memory. My two hour journey into beginner calculus had begun.

When something doesn’t make sense, more often than not, we are just missing a piece of the puzzle. As someone who never took math seriously in high school, I’m missing a lot of the early puzzle pieces. It’s rewarding to find the missing pieces and bring them together.

So I’ve Decided to Learn Math

I might want to do an Economics PhD

My undergraduate degree was in economics, now I’m studying a master’s in philosophy. I absolutely love philosophy, and I’m excited by the opportunity to dive in deep. Yet there are reasons I’d consider further study in economics, rather than philosophy. Importantly, the job prospects for even the most excellent philosophy students, after a PhD, are frankly dismal. Dismal chances if you’re world class, less for anyone else. In contrast, Economics PhDs seem to have no trouble finding work in the private sector if their academic hopes are dashed. It may not be easier to become a professor, but at least the 3-7 years you’ve invested are useful when applying for other jobs. Second, there are areas of economics which I find deeply interesting. The strategic interactions of game theory are fun, while the combination of mathematical theory and psychology in behavioural economics is also especially interesting. I believe philosophy makes an excellent choice for an undergraduate program, especially when combined with a quantitative discipline. Clear writing and logical reasoning are excellent skills to develop. I am not at all knocking those who pursue a doctorate in philosophy, well aware of the grim career prospects, because they love the pursuit of knowledge and are happy to “waste” those years doing something deeply meaningful to them personally.

“An economics PhD is one of the most attractive graduate programs: if you get through, you have a high chance of landing a good research job in academia or policy – promising areas for social impact – and you have back-up options in the corporate sector since the skills you learn are in-demand (unlike many PhD programs). ” 80,000 Hours

Economics PhDs require a lot of math

Recently I applied for an economics related research position. One clear piece of feedback was that I was lacking the math background. Likewise, PhD admissions in economics require a lot of mathematics. So, if a PhD in economics is even a consideration, I will need to learn some math. Although I did an economics undergrad, it was not nearly as in depth as what is expected by doctoral programs. In economics it is mathematical signalling that reigns supreme.

Exactly what Math is required?

My understanding is that I should at least take a course each in Single Variable Calculus, Multi-variable Calculus, Linear Algebra, and Real Analysis (see this post from Yale, for example). These are the four I hope to take. Many people also recommend courses in Statistics and Differential Equations, and other proof based courses. These would be useful if I had time, but these are optional, and I have my own research to do. I would also prefer to go through the foundations as deeply as possible, rather than rushing through more.

University or self-study?

There are at least three important factors when considering for me when deciding how to learn this material.

  1. Will I do it?
  2. How can I learn the most?
  3. How will I signal my new math ability?

The first question is actually the most important. Perfect is the enemy of good enough. So, will I actually get up, do the study needed, and carry out the plan. Whatever method I choose I need to be compelled to do the work. University learning has the built-in fear of failure, which I’ve found compelling enough in the past. University learning also makes it easy to demonstrate my understanding to others. University also provides all of the course material for a large fee.

However, over the past few years I’ve learnt how to learn things pretty well on my own. My method is to consume explanations, then try exercises, then I make flashcards with any exercise I didn’t solve correctly. I also write myself Feynman style explanations for any concepts I forget or find difficult. I add these as flashcards as well. This may sound like I’m just memorising the material, but that’s not the case. First, I will not put anything in that I don’t already understand. Second, I did essentially the same thing to learn Spanish, and found that having an extremely solid grasp of particular words and patterns allowed me to express myself freely. Rather than giving a superficial memorisation of the subject, the memorisation helps develop clear understanding. Getting the course material for self study proved exceptionally easy for the first two courses. These courses are available on MIT Open Courseware, including video lectures.

The hardest part when considering learning on my own is demonstrating my understanding, the signalling, after all, was the original motivation. My plan is to complete the two calculus courses online. Later, I will take the last two courses at my university as a non-award student, gaining a letter grade for each of them. This, combined with my blog about my experience, should hopefully be enough to convince even the skeptics that I’ve got what it takes.

What’s next?

I’m starting out with the first two courses, single and multivariate calculus from MIT open course ware. The video lectures are downloading as I type this.

I originally considered purchasing a textbook. However, I found this excellent list of resources for single variable calculus. Especially, there are notes and practice problems available here which I think will be enough for at least single variable calculus.

I’ll make sure to update this blog with how it’s gone.

Reading Recommendations for 2016

Every year I read a few books, most come endorsed by a few trusted sources. In 2016 I read 22 books in total, and started countless more. Here are 6 that I thought were the most brilliant.

Thinking Fast and Slow By Daniel Kahneman The story of two fictional systems in our brain, illuminating insights into human cognition, especially the heuristics and biases we all posses. See summary here.

Ego is the Enemy By Ryan Holiday A Very short guide to understanding and combating ego at every stage of success. See summary here.

The Art of Learning By Joshua Waitzkin Josh takes you through how he mastered Chess and then Tai Chi Push Hands, and his overarching method for true mastery of any endeavor. See summary here.

The Selfish Gene By Richard Dawkins A comprehensive introduction to evolutionary biology. See summary here.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality By Eleizer Yudkowsky Harry is re-imagined as an intelligent and scientifically literate student of Hogwarts, using the scientific method to discover just how this “magic” stuff works. Begin reading here.

Deep Work By Cal Newport Why working deeply and without distraction is both becoming increasingly rare and valuable, and strategies for implementing the concept of Deep Work into your life. See summary here.

I also recommend checking out some of the other books I read in 2016, especially Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, The black Swan by Nicholas Taleb, The Four Hour Chef by Timothy Ferriss, Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

Happy Reading!

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