Blog

Most Deliberate reads of 2020. Plus a Baby!

Yes, I know you were missing the weekly Deliberate Internet installments and they have been the only thing that helped you survive 2020. I missed writing them too, but I took a little break to welcome my baby girl to the world.

Yes – I am a dad now, so you may expect a little bit more parenting content, liberally spiced of course by my tech, remote, and post-soviet perspectives.

And Yes – if you want to see something more personal, I’ve published a letter to my girl on Piszek.com, where I share my hopes and fears for this new journey of parenthood.

Ten best things I’ve read in 2020

Artur, wouldn’t it be cool if it were 20? Ha! See – I am a smart parent and resist the urge to be cool, but instead, go with being practical. This is what dads do. I’m so ready, cargo pants and all.

Turns out I didn’t read nearly as much as in previous years. When the Western society’s complete and utter failure in handling the pandemic became clear, I became disillusioned by intellectualism. I’ve read fewer articles and books since apparently being well-read does not necessarily translate to better decision-making.

This theme is also clear from these recommendations below. I spent the entire year (as I suspect many of us did) wondering a bit “where did the things go wrong?”. I’m currently working on a draft titled “All the [postmodern] world’s a stage” where I explore blaming postmodernism – stay tuned (or email me if you have thoughts on the topic).

#1 What’s the deal with these new vaccines? [berthub.eu]

Reverse Engineering the Source Code of the BioNTech/Pfizer SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine is an accessible, fascinating analysis of medical history unfolding before our eyes. The author lists all the clever breakthroughs packed in this new breed of mRNA vaccines and explains why the framework holds promise for other diseases.

For computers, this is RAM, for biology it is RNA. The resemblance is striking. Unlike flash memory, RAM degrades very quickly unless lovingly tended to. The reason the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine must be stored in the deepest of deep freezers is the same: RNA is a fragile flower.

#2 Brief history of the Corporation [ribbonfarm]

A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100 sheds light on the corporations through the ages. Following the COVID-19 economic turmoil, we can expect some big government bailouts which will predictably spark discussion around corporations holding too much power. (Currently, we are witnessing that discourse around censorship following Parler bans, but that is an entirely separate topic.).

If we want to discuss this productively, we have to recognize that this is not a new situation, and learn from past mistakes. Venkatesh’s post is an excellent, and entertaining overview of corporate economic history.

Conventionally, it is understood that the British and the Dutch were the ones who truly took over. But in reality, it was two corporations that took over: the EIC and the VOC (the Dutch East India Company,  Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, founded one year after the EIC) the Facebook and LinkedIn of Mercantile economics respectively. Both were fundamentally more independent of the nation states that had given birth to them than any business entities in history. The EIC more so than the VOC.  Both eventually became complex multi-national beasts

#3 Keep your identity small [paulgraham]

We’ve seen some interesting political turmoil recently. Keep your identity small posits that most of the disagreements in today’s world come from attaching too much of your identity to an idea. If your entire self is invested in being from a certain tribe, you will protect that point of view even if it stops serving you.

So it’s not politics that’s the source of the trouble, but identity.

On Paul Millerd’s amazing Substack, I have written a similar piece expanding on the idea in the context of Remote Work.

#4 It’s time to build [andressen-horowitz]

I’m not the only one fed up with the West’s performance over the last year of the Pandemic (YES, it has been a year!). Marc Andressen, creator of the first Internet browser (and a Venture Capitalist now) has published a call-to-arms urging everyone to just start building: It’s Time to Build.

You don’t just see this smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build, in the pandemic, or in healthcare generally. You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.

#5 The Art of Gig [ribbonfarm]

The Art of Gig is an exquisite Cyberpunk-themed corporate satire. If you spent any amount of time around consulting business, this short story will take you for a ride filled with truths so deep your diaphragm will hurt from laughing.

A good leader, when asked, “Do you want to be perceived as a Strong Big Man Leader or a Humble Servant Leader” will always reply “both,” and mean “neither.”

#6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person [cracked]

Were it any other year, my biggest surprise would be recommending an article from Cracked.com. 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person is full of honest, timeless, and BS-free advice that we stopped receiving in Western Society. It’s also a quick read!

The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change.

#7 The Meritocracy Fallacy [princeton]

If you have achieved any modicum of success, it becomes very seductive to attribute that success to yourself. This is known as the “Fundamental Attribution Error” and yet, we have turned this into an ideology – the Meritocracy.

In A Belief in Meritocracy Is Not Only False: It’s Bad for You, Mark Clifton explains why it’s as the title promises – false, and bad for you.

In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.

‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.

#8 How to pick a career [waitbutwhy]

I am not sure I’ve read this article in 2020, but it doesn’t matter. Go read “How to Pick a Career” because it may change your work life.

When it comes to careers, society is like your great uncle who traps you at holidays and goes on a 15-minute mostly incoherent unsolicited advice monologue, and you tune out almost the whole time because it’s super clear he has very little idea what he’s talking about and that everything he says is like 45 years outdated.

There are likely dozens of awesome career paths that beautifully match your natural strengths, and it’s likely that most other people trying to succeed on those paths are playing with an outdated rulebook and strategy guide. If you simply understand what the game board really looks like and play by modern rules, you have a huge advantage.

#9 The Internet of Beefs [ribbonfarm]

The Internet of Beefs is a strategic analysis of conflict modes on the web. It provides a framework for understanding how come there is so much vitriol on the web.

A beef-only thinker is someone you cannot simply talk to. Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation to conflict. From there, you can only crash into honor-based conflict mode, or back away and disengage

#10 The trees. Oh, the trees. [amazon]

My biggest (in every sense of the word) recommendation is “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. A beautiful, captivating piece of fiction about Trees and humanity’s place around them. I wrote a little bit about the Trees on the Internet in a previous issue.

What were your favourite reads of 2020?

Do you have something I should read in 2021? Please do share! I’m currently searching for good Parenting-related content for obvious reasons, but I’m very curious about any topic on my mental atlas.

And have a splendid 2021! I know I will.

A Crow for Christmas

Winter is coming! Or – more accurately – the Winter Hollidays.

I will spare you a reflection on what an exciting year it was – I think you may have noticed. But instead, I will give you a peek into these scary Victorian Christmas Cards:

Writers Block Block

A few months ago, I wrote about GPT-3 – a new, best-in-class Artificial Intelligence text generator created by OpenAI. This week, I got access to the algorithm and proceeded to create a WordPress plugin that will help me write new posts.

I will keep you updated, but in the meantime here is a poem half-written by my lovely wife and half generated by a machine:

Don’t ask me
Why I tried to
Swallow the Ocean again


No human heart
Can contain
Koalas war and Betelgeuse


Pieces of me
Cloud of debris
Around what’s left of our world


It was the Ocean
That swallowed me

My Wife on her blog

And it will be the Ocean
That spits me out again

No one knows
What I’m after

And I’m not sure
I’ll be able to find my way home

Writers Block Block via GPT-3

Surprising consequences

Human-Made Materials Now Outweigh Earth’s Entire Biomass

In a shocking twist of events that is surprising to noone, humans have produced more materials than the nature itself – reports a paper published in well, Nature.

Their research shows that human activity including production of concrete, metal, plastic, bricks and asphalt has brought the world to a crossover point where human-made mass – driven mostly by enhanced consumption and urban development – exceeds the overall living biomass on Earth.

The amount of plastic alone is greater in mass than all land animals and marine creatures combined, the study estimates.

I will refrain myself from comment, since my recent delivery lifestyle is producing a lot of waste, but… damn. BTW – here is a video explaining why recycling is a sham.

Do you know how many people live in megacities?

Megacities are one of the more iconic examples of humanity’s footprint. According to Gapminder research – when people have estimated how many people live in huge agglomerations, they guess about 30%. Our culture is full of references to urban life and stories of high-powered middle-class families working in ‘the city’.

But as Gapminder reports, Less than 8% of the world’s population live in megacities.

Since products, laws, commercials and TV shows tend to be designed in those megacities, they are overrepresented and their inhabitants most tended to. The most impactful aspect of Remote Work may be the chance the other 92% of the world population may finally get on the job market.

The future of Work Is Written

While we’re chatting here about Remote Work, The Increment has published a very insightful article about writing skills as essential skills of telecommuting. I particularly enjoyed tying “the new” with “the old”:

Constitutional governments are great examples of how written artifacts can survive—and influence work—across centuries. For example, the U.S. Constitution passed down detailed instructions on how to make decisions without telling future participants in the governing process what decisions to make.

The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has been working at a distance for centuries;

Science publishing holds us back. We need to do better.

This issue of Deliberate Internet is one of those deep dives fueled by curiosity. This time it’s about science journals, Sci-Hub, Open Access, and the ugly underworld of academic publishing.

I don’t recall much from my psychology studies. I have some vague notion of what I learned over the 5 years, but one of the strongest memories was a feeling of utter frustration over accessing the research papers needed to write my thesis. I would find a perfect avenue of research only to be stopped by a science journal paywall.

My research on a quirk of human memory called “source monitoring error” probably would not advance the COVID vaccine, HIV cure, or the hunt for clean energy sources. But others working on those problems may be missing a key breakthrough because their university may have not purchased access to that particular journal.

The dizzying progress of humanity over the last 500 years is all thanks to the scientific method:

  1. Come up with a hypothesis about the world
  2. Test it rigorously, trying to disprove it
  3. If it still stands, invite others to disprove it
  4. If they cannot disprove it – it’s accepted as fact
  5. Upon this foundation, new, more complex hypotheses can move the understanding of the world forward.

These few principles ushered a new age dubbed the Scientific Revolution. Humanity was able to advance technology to the point beyond any imagination. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Homo Deus:

During the Scientific Revolution humankind silenced the gods too. The world was now a one-man show.

Despite what your uncle may believe, the canonical unit of disseminating science is not Youtube.

The research paper is the “deliverable” of scientists’ work. But it’s nothing without a research journal to publish it in. Science and Nature are the most prestigious ones.

Amongst scientists, there is the mantra “publish or perish” – they need to earn points (quite literary) by publishing papers in journals. The system is designed in theory to incentivize sharing results, discussing them, and subjecting them to peer review.

It’s a system where everything comes under scrutiny – except the journals themselves. Science itself became a feudal system where scientists have to fight to get published AND pay the journals to access their peer’s research papers. As the aforementioned Science quotes in “Who’s downloading pirated research papers – everyone“:

“Publishers give nothing to the authors, so why should they receive anything more than a small amount for managing the journal?”

The article opens with the story of Amirkabir from Iran. His experience closely mirrors my own:

To read a 2011 paper in Applied Mathematics and Computation, Rahimi would have to pay the publisher, Elsevier, $28. A 2015 paper in Operations Research, published by the U.S.-based company INFORMS, would cost $30. (…) Purchasing the papers was going to cost $1000 this week alone—about as much as his monthly living expenses

A group of science journal publishers – with Elsevier as the biggest one – has monopolized the science publishing industry, with universities as their captive customers. They need to buy access for their staff and students so that they can do their research – and of course – publish the work themselves. From the same Science article:

(A statement) (…) university recently issued about the impact of journal subscription rate hikes on its library budget:

“Scholarly resources are not luxury goods,” it says. “But they are priced as though they were.”

Why don’t scientists just release their papers in other journals?

Scientist incentivized to publish research papers present demand. It’s no wonder that the supply side has popped up – and is serving stuff that is not up to snuff:

Spam email inviting me to publish in a research papers mere 15 hours ago. Mind you – I am not an acadamic.

A whole crop of “predatory journals” is publishing any paper – for a fee.

Predatory publishing has been a real problem. In 2013 John Bohannon submitted a paper called “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” with purposefully deeply flawed methodology and got published in 60% of journals he submitted it to – including those backed by Elsevier and Wolters Kluver.

If you need a stronger proof that something is not right – a team of researchers annoyed at an email just like the one I received submitted a paper called “Get me off your fucking email list”, and got published:

Possibly one of the best research papers ever published.

These journals want to “prop themselves up” with established names and are eager to get scientists on their “editorial team” to serve as figureheads. A Polish team of researchers has submitted a blatantly fake resume of “Anna O. Szust” (from Polish: Anna F.raudster ) and of course – in many cases, they (or Anna) were invited to lend the name (Time magazine).

In this cesspool of fraud, spam, and lies, scientists are desperate to get their names into at least a half-decent journal, so they buckle up and pay.

Enter Sci Hub

Frustrated like everyone else (except Elsevier execs), but much more resourceful and determined – Alexandra Elbakyan created Sci-Hub in 2011. The site is online “exchange” for Science Papers.

Here is how it works:

  1. Scientists with legitimate access to articles (and frustrated by the current situation) are lending their credentials needed to download research papers
  2. You search a paper by the URL or identifier number
  3. If it’s in the database, you can download it
  4. If it’s not – it will be downloaded using credentials from point 1.

Saying that Sci-Hub is big is an understatement. It’s now THE science article database. And no wonder – from the same Science article:

The numbers are just staggering,” one senior executive at a major publisher told me upon learning the Sci-Hub statistics. “It suggests an almost complete failure to provide a path of access for these researchers.” He works for a company that publishes some of the most heavily downloaded content on Sci-Hub and requested anonymity so he could speak candidly.

Researchers can now find all the papers they need in one place, without tracking down for weeks that elusive obscure paper that they really need. God, I wish I had something like this during my studies.

Wait, isn’t that illegal?

Yes, it very well may be. But I also think it’s ethical.

I am a fan of subscriptions, I build subscription tools for a living, and have written about them, but my excitement is predicated on the fact that they let the creator pursue bigger risks to make more art (or science).

Paying the science journals helps noone (except, again, Elsevier execs). Consider following facts:

  • WE are paying for the research and the work of the scientists (in the form of grants). They receive no compensation from the journal,
  • Journals provide no additional value. They are being paid because they have been paid in the past
  • Paper authors are ecstatic that their papers get downloaded more. It’s not only more fame and citations (the academia currency), but more peer review as well. They are in this game for science after all.

The cost of the current situation is not the $9.8 Billion that Elsevier is able to rake in yearly. It’s trillions in opportunity cost due to scientists not being able to pay and access the paper that they needed for their next breakthrough.

Open Access.

Scientists themselves recognize that something has to give and see the same obvious solutions that we do. From the Berlin Declaration of Open Access:

The Internet has fundamentally changed the practical and economic realities of distributing scientific knowledge and cultural heritage. For the first time ever, the Internet now offers the chance to constitute a global and interactive representation of human knowledge, including cultural heritage and the guarantee of worldwide access.

Berlin Declaration of Open Access has been published in 2003. The progress of adoption hasn’t been that rapid, so we need Sci-Hub in the meantime.

But despite technological progress, Science itself has been known to move slower at times. The above link to the Open Access declaration is published on Max Planck Society, and it was Max Planck who said that “Science progresses one funeral at a time“.

Premium Mediocre Hacks

In a recent interview with Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin brought to my attention the definition of the noun “Hack” (not like in Hacker, but “to be a hack”).

The word “Hack” came from Hackney – a borough of London, where they bred horses. The horses were utterly commoditized – decent, dependable, and nothing special – so the carriage drivers using them were called “Hacks”. Seth Godin concludes:

“Where your nickname came as being a hack in that you didn’t have a special horse, you simply had a horse. There’s nothing wrong with raising a hack. There’s nothing wrong with buying a hack. Being a hack is about giving the customer exactly what they want at a decent price.”

He later of course states the value of original work:

However, it is important to distinguish it from the magic / fraught topic of our art of that thing that lights us up. The work that we actually want to do. And so my book, the Practices about that gap between being a hack, selling as if you’re a hack and the other thing, which is the generous act of doing something magic of leading.

Premium mediocre

For some time now I lacked the label for a homogenized millennial culture I myself am part of. My apartment is full of IKEA furniture, I own an iPhone, and pre-covid I loved to frequent those hipster restaurants that serve you fries in a clay planting pot and it somehow all makes sense. Oh, and I have a beard. There is no escaping it now.

For a while, I thought the word “hipster” encapsulates this trend. As derogative as it is, I embraced it for a while until I stumbled upon Venkatesh Rao’s “Premium Mediocre”. I highly recommend giving “The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial” a good read, but for the brevity of argument – Premium Mediocre is the commoditized aspiration of a higher-class life:

Premium mediocrity is a pattern of consumption that publicly signals upward mobile aspirations, with consciously insincere pretensions to refined taste, while navigating the realities of inexorable downward mobility with sincere anxiety. There are more important things to think about than actually learning to appreciate wine and cheese, such as making rent. But at least pretending to appreciate wine and cheese is necessary to not fall through the cracks in the API.

Hacks and Premium Mediocre

Now, after hearing Seth Godin’s explanations of the word Hack, I know that IKEA is a Hack. It’s dependable and decently priced. “McDonald’s Signature Burgers” are utterly Premium Mediocre, as Venkatesh describes (“Anything branded as “signature” is premium mediocre of course.”), and the iPhone is somehow both luxury and premium mediocre.

“Hack” is the ultimate “great deal” for the consumer – it’ fair and dependable. It’s also nothing special – that’s why – as Seth notes – it’s a crappy deal for the creator.

Ending this monologue on a somewhat positive note, I hope that technology will automate producing “Hacks” so that we can all “do the other thing”.

Surprising consequences

Teens did surprisingly well during the quarantine

How’s that for a surprising consequence: apparently, despite the economic strife and missing their friends, the pandemic removed a mental health risk factor making teens miserable: school.

teens have been sleeping more during the pandemic, and teens who are sleep deprived are significantly more likely to suffer from depression. In 2018, only 55 percent of teens said they usually slept seven or more hours a night. During the pandemic, this jumped to 84 percent among those for whom school was still in session.
Fifty-six percent of teens said they were spending more time talking with their parents than they had before the pandemic, and 54 percent said their families now ate dinner together more often. Forty-six percent reported spending more time with their siblings. Perhaps most striking, 68 percent of teens said their families had become closer during the pandemic

The Atlantic

4-Question MBTI test

MBTI questionnaire (dubbed “16 personalities”) is quite popular in business settings and total pseudoscience (read Anne-Laure’s essay on the topic). I challenge you to compare results from the below “questionnaire” and the popular 16 personalities test used to help people choose careers.

Copenhagen interpretation of ethics.

“The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more.”

Because every joke is better when you explain it – read on about the Copenhagen interpretation of physics and Woke culture. Explaining jokes makes me twice as awesome, because I can tell a joke AND sound smart explaining it!

PS:

Jeśli umiesz po Polsku i myślisz o zakupie kampera – napisałem ostatnio giga-posta na ten temat. Wyjaśniam od czego zacząć, jak się zabrać za kupno kampera i jak go sprawdzić i zarejestrować

The roaring twenties and the prohibition are back!

Mirriam-Webster dictionary has hailed the “Pandemic” as the word of the year (2020 if you are a little behind on your calendar). It may very well be “Lockdown”.

At my work, with friends from all over the world, we are swapping stories of how our respective governments are dealing with (or not dealing) the pandemic situation.

Seemingly a universal approach is to close down gyms, swimming pools, restaurants, and other places where people tend to spend time together (I was surprised to learn that Jamaica didn’t lock down gyms but introduced a curfew instead and it worked. Go figure.).

In Poland, for example, only organized groups are permitted to exercise, but gym workout equipment and free weights cannot be accessed “on-demand” legally. Legally is the key word here – From the same friends, I get some anecdotal stories about underground gyms, saunas, and hair salons.

In “Secret Gyms and the Economics of Prohibition”, the NPR’s Planet Money Newsletter authors launch an investigation into the illegal ways the gyms are operating under new rules. The story may very well be recounting ordeals of getting alcohol in the 1920s:

“Take the case of Christina, a paralegal and gym enthusiast from Tucson, Arizona, who asked us not to give her last name for fear of being labeled a snitch “

Apart from underground speakeasy establishments, there is of course a grey area of businesses striving to survive and clearly pushing the interpretation of the law. Since outdoor dining is still permitted, enterprising restaurant owners are coming up with outdoor, well, buildings:

I admit it is hard to judge these efforts to help the business stay afloat. Setting aside the responsibility for creating conditions helping spread the infection, I am surprised how quickly the history makes a full circle.

We are back in the roaring 20s, meeting in underground illegal clubs to get our fix of the forbidden fruit (in this case, meeting in person).

I’m most curious what is the 21st century equivalent of Jazz.

Surprising Effects

Did you know that the Frequent Flyer programs are bigger businesses than the airlines themselves?

The Financial Times pegs the value of Delta’s loyalty program at a whopping $26 billion, American Airlines at $24 billion, and United at $20 billion. All of these valuations are comfortably above the market capitalization of the airlines themselves — Delta is worth $19 billion, American $6 billion, and United $10 billion.

Byrne Hobart explains in this fantastic article about classic airline economics:

Loyalty programs aren’t a great business paired with a terrible one, they’re the part of a single unified business that makes it viable. An airline without its highly profitable loyalty program is a company that faces high labor costs, volatile fuel prices, and a rapidly changing demand environment. With loyalty programs, that’s offset by a high-margin, high-growth side business.

Local women crochet sweaters to shield rescued elephants from cold, Elephant Conservation Care Center, India

Time for something heart (and elephant 🐘) warming!

Perverse Incentives, USSR, Deutsche Bank, and Remote Work

Do you ever find yourself thinking “Well, this process is just wasteful? What if we made a rule, so that X. Surely, it would be better“? So did the economical planners of the USSR.

Soviet economics had really 2 goals:

  • Give everybody employment
  • Feed 293 million people and finance the entire endeavour

To some extent, we can even call the experiment a moderate success – the unemployment was definitely defeated. That is a metric that market economies still struggle with, especially now – after covid-related employment shifts.

It’s the economic viability that was not very successful. The USSR was not only much less effective than the western counterpart – it just wasn’t working and could not continue much longer than in 1990.

But why was it so problematic? In Optimizing Things in the USSR Chris Said explores the optimization problems of the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet economy was planned top-down, the rules introduced a lot of unforeseen perverse incentives. For example, there was a permanent shortage of thin metal tubes:

Administrators would often track the total tonnage of a few broad classes of steel tubes in the models, rather than using a more detailed classification scheme. While their models successfully balanced the tonnage of tubes for the broad categories (the output in tons of tube-producing factories matched the input requirements in tons of tube-consuming factories), there were constant surpluses of some specific types of tubes, and shortages of other specific types of tubes. In particular, since tonnage was used as a metric, tube-producing factories were overly incentivized to make easy-to-produce thick tubes. As a result, thin tubes were always in short supply.

At every turn, there were incentives for wastefulness in the name of meeting the goals. Operators acting in good faith had to overcompensate by lying which introduced even more miscalibration to the planning process, thus creating even a bigger problem.

Even worse, in order to obtain more resources, factory managers in the USSR routinely lied to the central planners about their production capabilities
The situation became so bad that, according to one of the deep state secrets of the USSR, central planners preferred to use the CIA’s analyses of certain Russian commodities rather than reports from local Party bosses!

Perverse Incentives

Setting top-down incentives in the complex system can sometimes hilariously backfire. A fantastic Reddit Thread “What’s a rule that was implemented somewhere, that massively backfired?” lists some:

Can you beat the highscore?

My city has issues with loud bikes/vehicles. So as a deterrant, the city put up decibel meters that displayed how loud your engine is(…) people would pull up to these signs and rev the heck out of their engines to see who could get the highest decibel count.

Missing the “30 minutes or less” Pizza delivery?

When Domino’s said all pizzas would be delivered in 30min. or less or your pizza was FREE. All the delivery drivers kept getting in car accidents to get your pizza to you on time, so it wouldn’t come out of their paycheck

Something to think about if you are organizing a wedding:

A hotel I used to work for decided they were having an alcohol-free holiday party. This didn’t sit well with the people who’d been working there for years and were accustomed to a full bar at the party. The staff parking lot ended up being full of people drinking in their cars trying to get a good buzz to carry them through the party and most people ended up getting way drunker than they would have so the party was a shit show.

You cannot have an alcohol-free wedding (in Poland at least). It’s better if you supply the alcohol – at least you have some control over the quality.

The Cobra Effect

Any good list of perverse incentives cannot omit the “Cobra Effect” (Wikipedia):

The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi. The government therefore offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the worthless snakes free; the wild cobra population further increased.

“Cobra Effect” is a consequence of the solution that’s worse than a problem it aimed to alleviate.

Deutche Bank and Remote Work

Some people have lucked out during the COVID pandemic and I count myself among them. When I was moving my career towards remote employment 6 years ago, my head was full of remote beaches and waterfalls. However, I found myself very well prepared (comparatively of course) for the challenges of 2020, even with the beach & waterfall shortage in my life. I do realize, that not everybody has had the same fortune, and am very sympathetic towards supporting other workers and actively contribute.

Also, the brilliant minds at Deutsche Bank have decided to optimize this, very much like the Soviet planners. I will let myself copy the key points from CNBC:

  • Deutsche Bank survey found more than half of workers wanted to continue working from home for the 2-3 days a week after the pandemic.
  • According to the Deutsche Bank Research report, a 5% tax rate on those days on the average salary of a remote worker could raise $48 billion a year in the U.S., £6.9 billion in the U.K., and 15.9 billion euros in Germany.
  • This would cover the costs of grants for people who can’t work from home and are on lower incomes.

How can this go wrong? I will leave it out as an exercise for you! Can you find the most perverse incentive this creates? Send me an email!

Deliberate 32 – The perils of prepping

With the Autumn rapidly taking its hold, many parts of the western world are now undergoing a second (or a third) wave of the COVID pandemic.

That second wave, apart from being MUCH more brutal and taking lives or more people – has caused less anxiety and has excited the preppers a tiny bit less. We have been through this, hence it’s not the “big one”.

As far as apocalyptic scenarios go, we are living it. We have been hit with a global threat, affecting not only health, but economies, and our way of life as well. According to my very scientific Google search, 1.31 million have died and 54 million people got infected, with many survivors reporting dangerous side effects.

And yet… We seem to be brushing this off to our detriment. Life feels a little bit more normal than in April, despite the hospitals being just plain full and even basic medical necessities rare commodities.

September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center have claimed the lives of 2977 people, but for COVID, with 500 times greater death toll and an immediate threat of infection, the emotional response around the world does not seem to match.

We are not built to prepare for the mundane.

If we were reasonable people (not that I am implying we are), we would prepare for the most likely scenarios – falling from a wonky chair while reaching the top shelf, a fire caused by that phone battery behind the couch, car accidents created by driving and texting.

But the fact that these scenarios are happening (because they are highly probable) is getting us habituated. Because we hear about it all the time, we are less likely to treat them seriously. When is the last time you checked the expiry date of a fire extinguisher in your car?

Our imagination is captivated by rare and extreme events, and prepper culture is focused on the Zombie Apocalypse AKA Mad Max scenario.

Doomsday prepping for Less Crazy Folk

In today’s issue, I highly recommend reading “Disaster Planning for Less Crazy Folk” by Michał. It offers a very balanced and practical approach to preparing:

Perhaps throwing out old junk, reorganizing the contents of kitchen cabinets, adding earthquake latches, or fixing a broken lock would be a better use of your time than ordering space-age prepper gadgets from Amazon.

He also advises against going deep into the amazon prepper rabbit hole:

Here’s my advice: keep the bulk of your savings in cash, stocks, and other assets you can easily liquidate or put to use today; even if you genuinely worry about the apocalypse, plan to spend no more than 2-4% of your money on essential prepper supplies.

If you need more convincing about validity of his advice, this post was last updated early 2018. Does this sound familiar in 2020?

When it comes to transmittable diseases, your best bet is avoiding exposure: if there’s something really nasty making rounds in your community, stay home – or at the very least, avoid public transport and other crowds. With that in mind, N95 masks ($2 a piece) probably provide adequate protection against most airborne diseases. The other major transmission vector is hand contact, so don’t touch other people, avoid public-use surfaces, wear gloves, and resist the instinct to touch your face without first washing or disinfecting your hands. We subconsciously touch our faces a lot more frequently than we suspect.

Here is what I put on my todo list:

  • Keep wearing that damn mask
  • Get fire extinguishers for my apartment, my mom’s place, and my car. Install smoke detectors.
  • Fill up my car. There is a downside to having your tank full and ready,
  • Stockpile flashlights, basic over the counter medicine, and water (5 gallons per family member)
  • Wear a damn helmet (which I never do) while biking (which I do often).
  • Download a copy of Simple English Wikipedia for offline use (250 MB, choose “pages-meta-current”)

The perils of prepping

I am sure there are many quotes about being prepared and the superiority of prevention over treatment. But all the good-hearted advice is usually missing one key point:

It’s just so damn tedious.

Fire extinguishers will need checkups (I opted for one with 20-year shelf life), batteries will leak (which can even spoil your electronics stash), mice will get into your flour stockpile. Prepping makes you accumulate more stuff. Stuff needs it’s own prepping. You want to have a life, so you opt-out of the prepper treadmill. It has worked out so far, hasn’t it?

On the other end of the spectrum, you have career preppers, who have optimized their lives around being prepared. But for them, the covid epidemic is a little disappointing, because they braced for the exciting future – Zombie Apocalypse and the total collapse of the market. They seem to even be hoping a little bit for the end-of-the-world, so they can feel validated.

Being a practical prepper requires you to do a bare minimum of mundane, common sense things you already know you should be doing.

All the details are there in Michał’s article.

As far as the tediousness goes, put your car oil checkups, fire alarm battery replacements, medicine, and fire extinguisher expiry dates, and all the rest of this mundane stuff on your calendar. And set a reminder.

Deliberate 31 – Infectious diseases and investment basics

In case you are searching frantically in your email spam folder for my previous emails from the last 5 weeks – don’t worry! Nothing is wrong with your inbox, I have indeed skipped them 😱.

My wife and I have been battling COVID infection, hidden away in our cabin to make sure we don’t spread the disease to our neighbors. We are perfectly healthy now – I have even returned to my workout regimen, but the whole ordeal was not fun.

I wouldn’t normally keep you updated about my health, but watch out. We took great care to not contract the virus and despite being in very good shape – the symptoms were not that mild. I know, that you probably have heard enough coverage of both COVID and US Elections to last you for decades, so I’ll keep my takeaways brief:

  • I had very little fever and consider measuring temperature in public places a joke,
  • Loss of taste and smell was complete for both my wife and I,
  • The rest of the sympthoms were flu-like, but I was exhausted for 2 weeks,
  • The “brain fog” took longer to subside, resulting with you lacking the comforting embrace of my newsletter
  • I took 10 000 IU of Vitamin D for a week and I think it helped. This is not considered a safe dose, please don’t change your mind on my word alone, but read up
  • This is all serious. Stay safe, wear a mask.

Investment Basics

Like any normal person struck with an infectious disease, I started reviewing my investments. I considered my strategy pretty solid, but I discovered that due to a law quirk, the tax rate on the dywidends from S&P500 ETF that I own may be 30% instead of 0.

The most infuriating aspect of it all is that this is one of 7 ETFs we have available on the Warsaw Stock Exchange, it took me 3 days of research and I still don’t have an answer!

I consider financial literacy a topic much more important than the crap (putting it mildly) we learn about past battles at school. After oh-god-how-many years of public education, I have to dig and scramble to understand the foundational pieces of how this capitalist country works.

I decided to start collecting the missing “Deliberate Lessons From Dad” so I can pass them on to my future children. If I can start them investing in ETFs by the age of 5, they will be unstoppable!

On to the lessons!

Here is my best advice about investing

  • Choose Index Funds or ETFs with low fees that are automatically managed. Low fees will accelerate your returns and automatic management will remove human error out of the loop. Right now the best funds are SP500 from Black Rock or Vanguard. Holding an index will give you returns as the economy grows. No worse and no better.
  • Compliment with Government Bonds and Gold (Physical)
  • Dollar-Cost Average your entire portfolio
  • Put your Dividend – Yielding stock in your tax-protected retirement accounts. That way, the compound interest from the dividend will be tax-free, and it will compound faster.
  • Rebalance often and mercilessly. If you have a target of 60% stocks in your account – if their price falls, you will buy more to adjust your wallet %. When they rise again, you will sell some and convert to bonds. With rebalancing, the market roller coaster works in your favor!

Read the in-depth tutorial on Piszek.com

Surprising consequences of the Internet

Mars is a Free Planet

Starlink Terms of Service are already prepared to claim “Mars a free planet, that recognizes no authority from an Earth-Based government”.

Lucky Martians.

Zoom fatigue, Manatees, and Twitter AI

For the last week, I have been on Zoom non-stop for 4 hours a day.

Since everybody on my team works in a different country, it’s hard for us to hang out under the 2020 world order. Usually, we’d fly to some exotic location to eat on the company dime work hard, but that is not possible. So we elected to meet over Zoom during a Remote Meetup.

It was quite a ride, but I have to tell you – Zoom Fatigue is real. I was exhausted. Meetup, however, was a stellar success. I promise to share a playbook so you can have a peek on how professionals (just joking, there are no adults here) do it or even repeat our mistakes.

For now, I’m gonna try to limit my screen time. Here is a picture of Manatees eating sweet potatoes – their favorite autumn snack:

Image

A few years ago I got to meet the “Cows of the Sea” (this is how Manatee translates to Polish) during my travels in Florida. Oh, I miss real meetups.

Three surprising consequences of the Internet

  • Last week, a “game” on Twitter exemplified the biases of Artificial Intelligence models in a hilarious way.
    When you post a really tall image on Twitter, the “Artificial Intelligence” (really a machine learning model, but I’m simplifying) tries to crop an image to space it has available. It tries to detect the “most valuable” place in the pic. Somebody had an idea to put 2 images at the ends of a very long “empty” canvas, to see which one would it choose, thus uncovering the bias.
    Predictably, white men were picked more often than any other group, with some… quirks.
    Search for “Testing Something” on Twitter, to see for yourself.

  • Build Personal Moats
    A lot of successful businesses have “moats” – a barrier that is hard to cross by a competitor. In the article, Eric Torenberg advises finding a “personal” moat – a unique quality that will differentiate you from other people. You don’t have to be “super good” at it – it’s better to aim at a unique intersection than will bring you joy. I dug up a question from there that I stored in my Question’s vault:
    “If you were magically given 10,000 hours to be amazing at something, what would it be?”
  • The Attack of the Civilization-State
    This fantastic article about the cultural expansion of China made me realize, that we have a different concept of a “state” in the west. And we – of course – use that framework to judge all the other countries in the world. But it’s not the only yardstick around.
    It is remarkable, when one thinks about it, that every controversial issue being decided in a successful democracy such as India should be subject to a final determination of its legitimacy by Western political and intellectual authorities. No one seems to take seriously the possibility that an editorial in The Hindu could settle the issue, but the leading newspapers in New York, Washington or London gladly take up the task. Cultural assimilation meant political dependence.

Mental atlas and corporate promises

Continuing the thread of focusing my curiosity, I am experimenting with different approaches to filter my “inputs”.

My primary responsibility, of course, is to deliver YOU the best and more interesting insights about the social and economic consequences of the Internet and thriving in the global consciousness. But that’s only a subset of my reading habits and I want an easy way to filter OUT the articles and books that I’m not interested in so that I can devote more attention to those that will matter to me (and you).

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Richard Feynman had his 12 favorite problems and Patrick Collison has a question list.

Mental Atlas

Anne-Laure LeCunff has a mental atlas, further extending the metaphor of notes database as a “mental maps”. Atlas is – after all THE book of maps.

While it may be possible to go through life without ever paying attention to these patterns across various mental and cognitive maps, being aware of the inherent interconnectedness of our thoughts will help guide your daily and long-term decision-making process.

In order to compile my own version, I:

  • Browsed the books I tend to pick and noted common topics,
  • Had a look at my blog to see where my attention gravitates,
  • Of course, scoured my notes for insights

Here is what I ended up with. This is and will continue to be, work in progress.

What should you do when a bird hits your window?

I had to figure that out on Saturday. A poor yellowhammer has crashlanded on my balcony and stopped moving. Quick Googling led me to put her in a cardboard box, safe from the hungry eyes of my dog.

Apparently, you should close the box. After a few hours, when the bird is flapping inside the box – it means it recovered. If the bird won’t regain energy, you should contact wildlife rehabbers – more insights in here.

My little friend escaped her box after 2 hours – I hope the incident is now only a distant memory. Glass skyscrapers are death traps for unexpecting birds, but I was surprised to learn that my balcony is part of the problem.

3 Surprising Effects of the Internet

  • Beware of Corporate Promises covers a fascinating natural experiment in company ethics.
    Less than a year ago, nearly 200 CEOs signed a solemn pledge, issued by the Business Roundtable, to stop caring primarily about their shareholders and to serve the needs of their workers, communities, and country too. After the pandemic hit, signers were almost 20 percent more prone to announce layoffs or furloughs Behavioral psychologists have observed an effect they call “moral self-licensing”: If people are allowed to make a token gesture of moral behavior—or simply imagine they’ve done something good—they then feel freer to do something morally dubious, because they’ve reassured themselves that they’re on the side of the angels.
  • Decomplication: How to Find Simple Solutions to “Hard” Problems by Nat Eliason touches one of my favorite topics – how basics are at the same time undervalued and overcomplicated.
    The core solutions to many problems, maybe most problems, are extremely simple. In one paragraph each, you can explain how to lose weight, how to gain muscle, how to save money, how to be productive, how to sleep better, how to grow a website, and just about any other popular problem. (…) We’ve been sold complexity our entire lives, and that’s made us undervalue the simple. As a result of the “monetization through complexity” problem, we no longer trust that simple solutions could be valid.
  • There is a kind of rock that can grow, move, and even multiply. Trovants produce bulbous “growths” from minerals in the rainwater – at a rate of 5cm every 1000 years. Since they accumulate new material on the inside – their shapes approach that of the Michelin man.

Roam Research Alfred workflow

If you are a Roam user – have a look at my Alfred workflow that lets you search your notes blazingly fast, use Roam as a snippet manager and a bookmark DB.