Settled wisdom | Urbanism | Wuhan virus

Sajith Pai's (hopefully) weekly newsletter #7

As with previous editions, this too has 3 sections. The first, ‘Writing’ - a piece of my original writing or a link to one; the second ‘Listening’ - notes on a podcast I listened to and liked; finally ‘Readings’ - excerpts from 3 articles or books that I enjoyed.

Writing | Settled wisdom, and why I am reading a lot of podcast transcripts these days

In order to write the last section of the newsletter, I started gathering my readings from last week. I noticed that bar one article, all of my shortlisted readings (from which I select the 3 final recommendations) were podcast transcripts. This wasn’t accidental. For I have been steadily whittling down my free substack subscriptions over the last couple of weeks. This means lower access to both individual articles as well as recommendations to them. In their place, I have been doubling down on reading the ones I pay for (The Diff, The Browser, The Generalist etc.) as well as increasing my reading diet towards more settled wisdom, and thereby more books and more podcast transcripts.

Settled wisdom, or settled insights, in my lexicon, comprises content of high quality, and permanency. Permanency here means that the content and the insights shared will stand the test of time. Settled wisdom which arises out of

  • curation: content that is recommended by a large number of people; it also depends on who recommends it, but in general the more the people you follow (which itself is an intentional act) recommend the piece, the better it is, and longer it will last

  • effort to create: books are harder, or take a longer time to create than a podcast which is harder to create than an article (some articles take longer to write than a podcast though:)). In general, the more effort taken by the creator to push through an idea, the more 

  • identity of creator: experienced creators create better content than a new creator (in general). A book by Steven B Johnson or Nassim Taleb is likely to be better than one by a new writer. Similarly a podcast featuring Tim Ferriss or Patrick O’Shaughnessy is likely to be better (and have better guests) than one by a newbie to podcasting.

If you wish to direct your reading towards settled wisdom, then clearly read books, and ideally older, established books (Lindy books as Taleb calls them, after the Lindy Effect, which states the longer something has been in existence, the longer it will continue to exist). Aside from (Lindy) books, two other pieces of content, have similar attributes - established podcasts and highly curated / recommended essays.

The podcasts I usually listen to are podcasts by well-known creators (Tim Ferriss, David Perell, Julia Galef, Russ Roberts, Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street Knowledge Podcast etc) or investors in the VC / startup community (Invest Like the Best, 20VC, The Next Billion, Acquired etc.) Barring a few (20VC is the biggest culprit), all publish transcripts of the podcast. This makes it easy to quickly scan the transcript and find out interesting and insightful content.

As I wrote in one of my essays ‘Why Podcasts Matter’ -  “In the startup / venture investing world, podcasts play an outsized role in knowledge dissemination, as compared to the written word. This is different from say an industry like hospitality or transportation, where the written word dominates, e.g., essays in their trade rags or reports. So what makes the startup / venture world different when it comes to podcasts? In the startup / venture world, time is short and it is difficult for many founders and investors to take time out of their schedules and put their thoughts together. It takes 3-6 hours to write a decent piece, more if you are writing one with a lot of analysis. But podcasts allow them to spend an hour and share their best ideas and learnings.”

Finally to essays and articles. Historically I used Nuzzel (which has now been discontinued) to curate interesting reads. The curation was iffy; while it surfaced interesting reads, a lot of the readings were ephemeral content and not the settled wisdom I wanted to read. I haven’t arrived at a definitive solution here, though a combination of subscribing to curator sites like ‘The Browser’ and creating my own shortlist of content sites (that I access through Feedly) has helped.

And so it came to be that I found my reading to comprise more and more podcast transcripts, and less and less articles. 

Listening | ‘Order Without Design’ podcast - Alain and Marie-Agnes Bertaud w host Devon Zuegel

Podcast (and transcript) link.

I completed a fascinating 4-episode podcast series called Order Without Design, hosted by Devon Zuegel featuring urban planner Alain Bertaud and his wife and fellow collaborator Marie-Agnes Bertaud. The title of the podcast is derived from Alain Bertaud’s book of the same name, which came out in ’18 and features his reflections and recommendations from a career in urban planning. I haven’t read the book yet - I have ordered it but the recent ‘lockdowns’ announced by Indian state governments which bar ecommerce in non-essential goods (outside of food, cleaning and health products) mean that it will take a few weeks or more to find its way to me.

The podcast recorded in different settings over the year 2020 is a sidecar to the book. It covers the story of the Bertauds as they move from country to country working on different projects - Yemen, Mexico, India all make an appearance as do cities like Paris and NYC etc. Their experiences constitute a scaffolding to discuss urban issues like sewage, education, transport, safety etc. It made for riveting listening, and made my dishwashing easier and enjoyable (and possibly longer)!

Episode 3 in particular was the highlight - with its discussion of Yemeni toilets, an operation that Alain underwent in Yemen without any anaesthesia, the well-read kids who survived tuberculosis in early 20th century Europe, and why many plantation owners’ houses in the US South are located on a hill (to beat Malaria).

Links to episodes with transcripts as well as photos, drawings at Devon’s website.

Readings | What I read and found interesting

Still reading books Family Trust and Why Information Grows. Mostly Family Trust, which should finish soon.

Here are excerpts from what I found interesting the last week or two.

How to hire better | Daniel Ek

“…one of the hardest things for a founder. How do you know how to hire world-class people if you have never seen world-class? And the truth of the matter is, sure, you can read up to a certain amount on the subject, but I don't find that you would then know what someone who's pretty good versus world-class looks like. 

I think the very, very key is that a lot of people just don't spend enough time trying to understand what the role is that they're asking the person to fulfill. They think about the function, but not the actual task at hand that the person is supposed to fill, and so trying to figure out what world-class looks like for that function might be totally different to what is needed for that task. 

Take the role of the CFO. Are you looking for an operational CFO? Are you looking for a financially driven CFO? Are you looking for a strategic-level CFO? The truth of the matter is, we're gonna say we're looking for all of it. But that's not necessarily what's important in your organization at that particular moment. If you think about the difference between an operational CFO and a financial/strategic-type CFO, they couldn't be further apart, and so what's world-class is completely different.

….founders need to think more about what success looks like for the candidate after a year or two, and be able to articulate that. Then they need to work backwards and ask, Okay, what kind of skills does that mean that person needs to have? What kind of experience would probably prime the candidate for having those types of skills? And then get into the depth of trying to see if the candidate truly has that type of experience and learnings.”

Rules for success | Angela Duckworth

“Shane: Do you have personal rules, routines, or habits for success? I like to think that there are these  automatic rules that we can adapt for ourselves that put us on the path to success to help us get what we want out of life. I’m curious as to what those habits, routines, or rules that you have are.

Angela: I’ve been researching that a little bit. Personal rules are in the same family as habits because you’re not thinking about it. You’re not deliberating, you’re just doing. The reason I’m studying it is because very successful people have usually a small number of fairly inviolable rules and habits.

Why is that? The reason I think is twofold. So Colin Camerer at Caltech, who’s a collaborator would say that the biggest reason why we have habits is they put us on autopilot and they free up cognitive resources for other things.

There’s another reason I think Colin would agree with, that habits are a self-control device. If you’re doing something as a matter of habit—like exercising or eating a salad for lunch, or writing thank-you notes, or doing other things which are good for you and others in the long run but maybe not the funnest, easiest thing to do in the short run—being on autopilot is very good for that.

It’s not just so that we can free up cognitive resources to do calculus. It’s also because many of the things about which we have habits and rules are self-control dilemmas where the immediate alternative is just better. 

Daniel Kahneman told me this in our conversation for the podcast; “Nobody argues with rules.”

Shane: Yes. You have to think for yourself—what are the rules that are likely to put me on the path to success? But I think about that in multiple ways, right? There are lifestyle rules, which is you want to get enough sleep. You want to eat healthily.

What are the rules that you can create around that that help you just go on autopilot? It could be your alarm going off at 9:30 because it’s time to wind down and go to bed. Why am I doing that? I’m doing that because that puts me in the best position to succeed tomorrow at work.

And then you have these rules about the type of person you want to become. What would that person behave like in these given situations? You have an identity-based rule system because I want to be a better person. I want to be a better spouse. I want to be a better version of myself. Or what does the best version of me look like in these moments? So you have these business rules, you sort of have these life rules, and then you have these personal rules. “

So, COVID-19 could well have emerged from a lab in Wuhan | Nicholas Wade

“To my knowledge, no major newspaper or television network has yet provided readers with an in-depth news story of the lab escape scenario, such as the one you have just read, although some have run brief editorials or opinion pieces. One might think that any plausible origin of a virus that has killed three million people would merit a serious investigation. Or that the wisdom of continuing gain-of-function research, regardless of the virus’s origin, would be worth some probing. Or that the funding of gain-of-function research by the NIH and NIAID during a moratorium on such research would bear investigation. What accounts for the media’s apparent lack of curiosity?

The virologists’ omertà is one reason. Science reporters, unlike political reporters, have little innate skepticism of their sources’ motives; most see their role largely as purveying the wisdom of scientists to the unwashed masses. So when their sources won’t help, these journalists are at a loss.

Another reason, perhaps, is the migration of much of the media toward the left of the political spectrum. Because President Trump said the virus had escaped from a Wuhan lab, editors gave the idea little credence. They joined the virologists in regarding lab escape as a dismissible conspiracy theory. During the Trump Administration, they had no trouble in rejecting the position of the intelligence services that lab escape could not be ruled out. But when Avril Haines, President Biden’s director of National Intelligence, said the same thing, she too was largely ignored. This is not to argue that editors should have endorsed the lab escape scenario, merely that they should have explored the possibility fully and fairly.

People round the world who have been pretty much confined to their homes for the last year might like a better answer than their media are giving them. Perhaps one will emerge in time. After all, the more months pass without the natural emergence theory gaining a shred of supporting evidence, the less plausible it may seem. Perhaps the international community of virologists will come to be seen as a false and self-interested guide. The common sense perception that a pandemic breaking out in Wuhan might have something to do with a Wuhan lab cooking up novel viruses of maximal danger in unsafe conditions could eventually displace the ideological insistence that whatever Trump said can’t be true.”