Zero to One

Zero to One. This was an audiobook, narrated by the primary author, Peter Thiel. Thiel was cofounder of PayPal, is a director at Facebook and is an economic advisor to Donald Trump. It was originally compiled as entrepreneurship lecture notes by Stanford student Blake Masters.

Hearing his voice added a deeper insight into the book’s content. I could feel the experience behind his words. I could peer into the inner life of a Silicon Valley elite. How he viewed the world and those in it, as an insider. Surely an intellectual too.

He sounded mild and even tempered throughout, yet not boring because he sounded present and somehow healthy. Punctuated by sub-communicative insights. A hint of contempt for another elite person or organisation. A crack of sympathy for the unfortunate. Sometimes I felt this was contrived. It was interesting to hear someone speak about Facebook for example as an insider who had authority over it.

On to the content. I wasn’t struck by any great structure of the ideas. Being an audiobook it was hard to picture how the book was structured, as would appear in the contents. That can mean that the content itself is better though, remaining in the organic units of lessons, rather than being “boxed in” to an overall pleasing layout or architecture of ideas when they needn’t be. That’s how the content seemed to me overall: organised into lessons rather than a system. Then again “notes” is in the title.

It seems to me that the two great contemporary entrepreneurship books are The Lean Startup and this. Having read the former I felt compelled to contrast the two. During listening and now. The former felt more procedural and systematic. Whereas this felt more concerned with principles and fairly high level advices; the reason being that if you understand the principles and essential pieces then you can apply them to many or all scenarios and the details sort themselves out or don’t matter so much. Different people tend to prefer detailed or high level thinking, but I think it’s good to read both.

I feel Peter is more boss than Eric Ries. Thiel’s references to Shakespeare, Goethe and Tolstoy were impressive but it’s a rare person who can also speak personally about the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg as well. The book did feel a bit like a shrine to Thiel’s greatness or ego. It’s almost as if he rejected or never learned the value of humility. I suppose he intends and does a lot of good overall though which sufficiently justifies egoism in my view. It doesn’t beautify it but in this case the book is beautiful.

As the name suggests, this is a book primarily for ventures doing something new. I think the most central business message he had was that one should aim to be a monopoly: because in competition profits get competed away. The easiest way to be a monopoly is create something new.

Aim for technology that is 10x better than the nearest competitor. This was a message to engineers. This was balanced and contrasted by the message that you need a good sales strategy as well to succeed. The best ideas don’t always win, they have to succeed in the market to do that.

Some parts were very practical advice. Such as the importance of suitable cofounders and company culture.

It got philosophical at the beginning and towards the end. The thought experiment that there are four possible outcomes for humanity. The concept of “the singularity” being the logical end to technological advancement. Interesting, however briefly covered, and something that I’d want to look in to further. It made me realise that science fiction is probably good to read if you want to be a tech entrepreneur; thinking and feeling in terms of technology that doesn’t exist yet.

Designer Minds

The notion that you can “choose” how to condition your mind has always appealed to me. For example if you embarked on a career in a caring profession then your brain would generally be firing differently than in a technical profession. Genetics plays a role as well though: mind is impacted by both nature and nurture.

I’ve always felt that majoring in finance has conditioned me to see things in terms of the wisest approach. The most profitable in terms of time and energy, as well as money. “Take the best course of action” has always been my motto. People will tell you that my pet hate is things being done “stupidly”. Of course, a genetic predisposition to this type of thinking probably led me to choose finance as well.

As someone in a technical career and with an interest in further developing my writing, it’s become clear that this type of thinking is no longer going to cut it. Sure it’s “smart” to be involved in these areas at this point in time. However, it’s not smart to not have a head in the clouds when solving technical problems is what pays the bills.

There’s a learning curve that spans novice, intern and junior. On this part of the journey you are basically told what to do, so you don’t need to be too switched on. However when you start getting paid and presumably offering real value, there’s an expectation that you don’t need to be directed and compartmentalised. You start having to take more responsibility. In the day to day you are expected to be a problem solver. At this point, I’ve found that financial-type thinking is inappropriate. Technical-type thinking must replace it.

Here is where I find myself. Being forced to recalibrate things on a very basic level in order to continue paying the bills. I have had a few ideas about how to make this transition to technical-mindedness.

Reframe your goals in appropriate terms. I made the mistake of framing my goals in terms of business and lifestyle success. This is strategic thinking. It weakens your value proposition by putting your head in the clouds. I’m constantly reframing my goals and still looking for the ideal “thing to write” which would lead to greatest value offered, job security, professional growth, employer/hirer satisfaction, happiness etc. Perhaps it’s a mistake to write anything down at all. This is an issue I grapple with on a near daily basis: to formulate (goals) or not to formulate?

Have a success model. My issue is that people felt that my head was in the clouds too much for them to rely on me to come up with technical solutions. It’s no wonder: my idea of success was travelling and getting paid passively, not grinding day in day out in IT professions. So I recalibrated by selecting a success model who has succeeded in this type of job. Who would completely crush it in what I’m getting paid to do. Succeeded in paying the bills and being highly sought after in the market. The sort of person who I call when I have technical problems because for whatever reason the buck seems to stops with them. This buck-stopping vibe I believe is the most psychologically desirable trait of a tech person. What is it? A proclivity towards solving technical problems.

I truly believe that the fundamental language of everything technical is mathematics. Mathematics has never been my strong suit. I used to be so smart that I solved maths problems in my own way intuitively, so never bothered to learn the proper mathematical methods. Then when it got harder in high school I just started hating it because I never learned how to follow the methods and it was apparently a pointless and mentally costly exercise. Mathematics appears to be the language of exactness, properties and rules that underpins everything technical. To engage in mathematical problem solving is to be knee deep in problems that need answering. Answers either work or they don’t. You could call someone to ask them the answer but then you probably shouldn’t be getting paid by someone else to solve their maths problems.

Thus, if you want to become more technical minded the solution is to condition your mind using mathematical-type problems. I will test this hypothesis this year as I embark on a regimen to become strong mathematically. So far I’ve found that it makes everything from science to IT to philosophy more intuitively graspable, and it also gives you a vibe that is psychologically reassuring to people that are paying for solutions. Ironically it also makes you stronger in just about any financial role.

Some Ideas on Metaphysics

54109432591607929.jpgI’m listening to an audiobook about modern philosophy and it’s got me thinking about the nature of reality. They’ve discussed Descartes, Locke and now Spinoza, to name a few. What I’m about to say may be well outdated by now in philosophical circles but I thought they were valid responses given what was being said, I’ll try to explain it in a way that’s meaningful to those who weren’t there when I was listening to it (which is everyone other than me).

Firstly, on dualism. Descartes was a dualist. It seems to me that dualism is the belief that there is mind and matter; and that’s the fundamental distinction. Mind includes soul. All of this is apart from God which to Descartes is like a third thing.

Part of the reason this debate about mind vs matter being a hard and fast distinction doesn’t ring true is because we inherently know that there is interplay between mind and matter. They affect each other. My suggestion is as follows. It is better not to think of it as mind and matter, but rather as mind, matter and organic matter. Organic matter is made of the same  subatomic particles as matter and is physical. However it is what we are made of and it is inherently in constant exchange with its environment. Deep down we feel that it’s true that we are in constant flux exchange with our environment rather than being purely mind within matter. Mind feels this quality of being porous, it’s not insular.

I like Spinoza’s pantheist thinking about how nature and God are one, and they are the entirety of everything. Thus everything in it such as mind or matter are both simply attributes of the greater whole. The way they spoke about mentality as being an attribute of the whole got me thinking about the nature of mentality.

Mentality, what is it? I think mentality is a lot like the workings of a computer. The things that make it special is that occurs on a conscious level. It is experienced. That is to say it occurs within the frame of consciousness. Importantly it is also subject to volition despite “having a mind of its own” sometimes.

In this way consciousness is seen as being like a new plane out of which attributes in nature spring and are entirely based upon. If consciousness ceased to exist then the mental would cease to exist in any vital way and become not more than machinations to connect dots and achieve ends.

If you made a computer out of organic matter and gave it consciousness of its own machinations and power/update/servicing needs, wouldn’t that be eerily like a little person? The thing that would give legitimacy to its plight would be if we could empathise through some kind of facial interface and it with us through sensory input. Then it could tell us what it was feeling and soon about 50% of people would be in favour of granting it more rights.


img_1298As non-fiction goes this is right up there with the best. I can hardly imagine reading anything that was more fascinating. For me the study of humans and where we came from has always seemed such a high yield topic for getting that dopamine rush of understanding.

The resounding beauty of this book is the voice with which he explains society’s institutions. He really makes you understand them objectively, like an outsider looking in. He shows you where they originated and developed: in the cognitive revolution and agricultural revolution respectively. How they’re “myths” that form an intersubjective reality to bind us together. This would otherwise be impossible in such high populations. Yet these myths of institutions have become studied deeply, layer upon layer. Exacted through numbers. They’ve become the fabric for much of life. We’re the fish in the fishbowl that can’t comprehend water.

I like that he began from the very beginning. Physics. Then chemistry. Then biology. And by the end he had covered what might be expected from the future of humanity. Really venturesome ideas that aren’t apparent today at all; such as genetically engineering super humans which don’t share our failures. Like greed, hatred or perpetual discontent. He by no means skipped on the philosophical discussion of these new areas either, going the extra mile like this are what I believe earns a book rating that fifth star. I presume his other book Homo Deus covers the futurism aspect in greater detail and I look forward to reading it.

Some things that stuck with me after reading it were:

  • The cognitive revolution is what occurred in the human mind to give us our intellect, including the ability to communicate and pass knowledge down the generations
  • The agricultural revolution sparked writing, marriage, class system etc
  • Total number of civilisations is decreasing as they merge into larger ones – trend towards globalism
  • Money, empire and religion are what first “globalised” the world
  • Capitalism and science are basically why Europe became most developed and conquered the world. Capitalism liked empire
  • Expected economic growth is a recent phenomenon but it underpins the modern economy and financial system (Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations). Constant growth becomes necessary to keep functioning properly because why borrow or invest otherwise?
  • Constant growth of demand requires consumeristic society and culture. It permeates our minds and controls our behaviour in profound ways
  • The market has replaced the family/community for meeting most of the needs of individuals: it demands individualism though
  • The poor have a consumerist ethic but the rich have an investment ethic, two sides of the coin
  • People may not be any happier now than in the Middle Ages, because of expectations, beliefs about an afterlife etc. What’s the point of progress without happiness?
  • Mathematics has brought exactness into life, hence why they teach it to everyone. Not a priori knowledge apparently
  • Standardised time replaced natural time and regional times. First standardised time was in Greenwich, England. Used initially in factories, then schools and shops naturally followed suit. In this way time is an extension of capitalism? Now time is incredibly exact, virtually inescapable.

Disconnecting From Internet Content

It’s been two days since I “disconnected” from the internet. I still use it for work but I’ve deactivated Facebook and blocked my usual meme websites using the Chrome block site add-on. I want to keep it going for at least a week and document the experience.

Memes have been my great addiction over the past few years. I would spend hours a day on Facebook, 9gag, and more recently on youtube looking at alt-right stuff. Not just a big block of several hours in the evening: more like 30-40 quick, compulsive checks during the day followed by a few hours in the evening. I’m sure many people can relate to it somehow because I see people constantly on their phones just like I was last week. Last week I wouldn’t have noticed that because I would have been on my phone.

I’ve tried to go cold-turkey in the past and it’s quite an ascetic experience, punishing even. That dopamine doesn’t replace itself. That’s why I believe it’s important to replace internet content with something else; preferably something more positive or useful. I broke out the old ps3 and started playing Skyrim again. At first, it felt painfully slow and didn’t give me any pleasure; but after I while I started getting into it and it was better than life itself.

Video games are a step up from memes I believe. This is because they’re active rather than passive, and it’s a more life-like tempo. Gratification is delayed somewhat. Importantly, I feel that since it’s “just one thing” rather than a multitude of successive things, it is conditioning one’s mind to hone in on things for a good while rather than frittering momentarily from one to another like a butterfly. I believe that internet addiction cripples the mind’s ability to think deeply, and hence having it under control is imperative for a writer.

Meditation is another thing that I would recommend to anyone undergoing this process. Although I would recommend that to everyone anyway (imagine a world where everyone meditated: utopia). Meditation takes the edge off. You don’t take any of it so seriously because you’re just a few steps back from what you do either way. I think it makes a person come off as less wanky as well; wankiness being a perennial issue with giving up anything in common usage.

My experience on the commute to work this morning was rather interesting. Ironically I felt more anxious or vulnerable than usual. This is because usually when I feel this anxiety I immediately “escape” into my phone. I have two parallel realities to inhabit: the real world around me and the virtual world in my pocket. The real world is scarily out of my control and yet mysteriously necessary to me. The virtual world does exactly what I tell it to and there’s no anxiety whatsoever. My anxiety is eased when I notice that virtually everyone on the train is on their phones, however.

There is a certain power in being the least withdrawn, the most present to a situation. Being present puts you at the centre of things, in the momentary “in crowd”. The “scarily necessary but out of control” nature of the real world is diminished when you are more in it than others, after all, it is people who are the most out of control part of it. I believe that being present like this is a leadership quality. The opposite is the need to withdraw from what’s going on while other people shoulder more responsibility for being present: someone has to be present don’t they? Yes, this is what a typical train ride is like for me: highly philosophical.

After a day or two without internet, one feels more interested in the other things of life. The feeling of a hand rail. The person walking down the street. Even just the special impression of a moment can be oddly satisfying. Dopamine by looking out a window. That seems so right.

On the other hand, there is a certain neediness to being interested in people. If there are ten people in a room and nine of them are on the phone every fifteen minutes; the one person who isn’t on their phone is “all in”. At once more in control, more interested and more invested. The others have one foot in the present moment and one foot in the virtual so they can quite happily withdraw from the present whenever they wish. They get their dopamine virtually. The person without internet doesn’t have anywhere else to go. My point is that it can often seem that you are giving more of yourself than other people and it’s a bit like being rejected.

Part of masculinity means being active rather than passive. I believe being active in an interaction necessitates being present to it. Since the one who withdraws is “passing” on various levels. On the other hand, neediness isn’t very masculine. If it’s a situation you want to be in then it’s not needy, though. It’s much easier to be “active” and therefore manful when your mind is conditioned to be continuously at home at places and with people rather than the virtual.

Why It Was Smart for Apple to Drop the Headphone Jack

The internet was in an uproar for several weeks when it was revealed that the iPhone 7 didn’t have a headphone jack. It seemed like people unanimously hated it. While some people still spoke highly of Apple (myself included), almost no one seemed to defend the decision.

I have a theory about why exactly Apple did this.

There is a robust debate about the future of the headphone jack. Intel expects the USB type-C to replace the headphone jack. There is no doubt that Apple has its own intelligence about this and as the largest consumer electronics company in the world it has unique insight into the future of the industry.

This was a strategic move. It was first and foremost about branding and creating a narrative. When Steve Jobs passed away Apple seemed to have lost its mojo. The prestige of their brand was diminished. As of Q1 2016 Samsung holds a greater market share of the smartphone market.

Part of what made Apple so special in its earlier years was Steve Jobs’ philosophy that you had to “bet the company” sometimes. He had an ethic about vision, quality, and artistic merit; this was obvious to the public. It caused Apple to take certain risks that other companies would not and this made them perceived as the leader in the industry.

Apple’s brand is super-important and what the move was about is reestablishing their identity as anti-establishment and a leader in the industry; post-Steve Jobs. If this is indeed where the industry is going then Samsung and others will be forced to drop the headphone jack as well. How reactive that would look.

They bet the company as Steve might have done and if it pays off then they’ll regain their mojo and prove that they’re still special. The narrative and the brand are once again compelling.