The famous and the forgotten

Ready for a quick random ride through different families and generations? Ending in an awkward attempt at tying it together at the end? Let’s go!

In 1883, Kahlil Gibran was born in Bsharri, Lebanon. He emigrated to Boston 12 years later, in 1895.

Later on, he wrote “The Prophet”, in print since 1923 and translated in more than 100 languages. It is a book of immense poetic and philosophic power. Its 26 fables touch on many aspects of the human condition with great sensibility.

Friendship, love, marriage, time, solitude, you name it, MC Gibran has a moving, wise idea about it.

A teacher at his school noticed his artistic talents. He recommended him to Fred Holland Day, who was mentoring poor immigrants in Boston.

Although Day’s work is contentious, as his subject matter often included young male nudes, he is a renowned American photographer. He was the first to argue for photography to be recognised as fine art.

Fred Holland Day was a descendant of Ralph Day, who was a British early settler and member of the local government of Dedham, Massachusetts.

Ralph Day came to America in around 1630. His day job was to beat the drum to call worshipers to the First Church and Parish in Dedham.

In 1647, Ralph Day married Susan Fairbanks.

Susan Fairbanks was the daughter of Jonathan Fairbanks (born in 1594) who is known to have built one of the oldest surviving wood houses in the United States.

Today Kahlil Gibran is the person we remember most out of all these people.

Yet this backstory makes me wonder: how can we know how much being taught by the artist descendant (Fred Holland Day) of a guy who beat the drum in 17th century America (Ralph Day) influence Kahlil Gibran in his road to poetry? Is this influence quantifiable? Are there some things that can become some kind of intergenerational echoes?

Why you should read “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb

What do 9/11, the success of the Harry Potter series, or the sinking of the Titanic have in common? They are all Black Swan events, as defined by Lebanese-American trader-turned-essayist of uncertainty Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

In his eponymous book, he defines Black Swans as rare, unexpected events — they elude traditional risk management models — that have paradigm-shifting impact and are rationalised in hindsight, as if they could have been predicted.

As humans, we understandably desire fitting such events into simple narratives and being able to better predict the future. Instead, Taleb first advocates accepting the prevalent role of chance. He goes on explaining that we should instead build robustness — and later anti-fragility (benefit from the exceptional) — into systems.

Reading the book will transform your perception of risk and uncertainty, both in business scenarios and in your personal life.

A short book review I wrote for a friend.

Sundry: Van Gogh fame, depressed kids, escape rooms, being productive, Apple Card

Excellent, original productivity tips and tricks from someone (Alexey Guzey) who spent a lot of time thinking about it. The first bit is about what to do if you’re unproductive right now. It’s good —

Escape rooms are about escaping reality. They are odd: “it is weird to gather in a themed room for an hour to unlock combination locks in a high-stakes situation that matters not at all.” Yes but they are cool, aren’t they? History and theory of escape rooms, courtesy of Rachel Sugar, for Vox —

How to find your artistic voice and be true to yourself as an artist —

Would you go to a restaurant where your order will probably be wrong? That’s the premise behind the restaurant of mistaken orders, in Tokyo, where all waiters have dementia. They say the food is good anyway. So it’s not a problem —

On hammocks, their history and their greatness —

Why are kids so depressed? The numbers are dreadful. Is it food or screens? Is it education, as per the Pink Floyd? Or is it a lack of communal structures to help parents with child-rearing, as Kim Brooks argues? We’re putting a lot of pressure on kids and they’re not happy about it. More play please! —

Why are mountain roads curved and not straight? Spoiler: follow the donkeys —

Societies with subsistence economies might use sharing as a risk-buffering function. Less true for societies that have other means of getting food such as animal husbandry or external trade —

How did Van Gogh become famous if he only sold one painting during his lifetime? —

Curated technology links

People at Linear Labs are trying to reinvent the electric motor —

Extraordinary 1:30 long conference by Jean-Marie Hullot, the man who invented Interface Builder (used to create user interfaces on Macs by every developer) and who whispered to Steve Jobs’ ear that Apple needed to create a phone. We know what happened next —

Uber and Lyft take more from their drivers than they say —

Why do some indie video games look like bad? —

 Thoughts on Apple Card by Jean-Louis Gassée: how vs. what —

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Sundry is a list of unrelated but interesting links, about 7 of them, sent every week. It is a distillation of what I read (80+ hand-curated blogs through RSS, for the last 12 years). 

Curiosity Satisfaction Guaranteed™.

Sundry: East Timor, the invention of the bicycle, mosquitoes, sleep + a new tech section!

Why did we wait so long for the bicycle? Turns out inventors had to stop trying to create a four-wheeled carriage without a horse and had to conceptually think about replacing the horse-with-rider paradigm. Also, materials and technology —

Who is humanity’s greatest enemy? Think about it for a second. Did you guess mosquito? It’s mosquitoes. They’ve been killing us for a long time. And now, Timothy Winegard wrote a book about it —

Genome-wide association studies spitting polygenic scores are mired in statistical problems. The idea that we can understand why Northern Europeans are taller than Southern Europeans from a large pool of genomic data is not so evident. Sure, we can make plants that yield larger fruits but when the genetic traits become complex (height or disease), it gets very complex. Please always beware of people telling you that some populations have higher IQs than some other populations and base that idea in genetics —

Cells in the reward system of the brain fired more energetically in response to rewards that had cost more effort, possibly reflecting effort justification, inferring greater liking from having worked harder for something —

Campaign rally songs of the 2020 candidates. A nice piece of journalism by the NYT —

How enjoyable is it to go through a museum and get information from Google Lens (vs. you know, reading the little notices or using the audio guide)? Lauren Goodie is puzzled —

What happens to your body and brain if you don’t sleep? All sorts of depressing shit, delightfully animated in an instructive video —

I’ve never understood why people used the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” until I read this article about what happened when Australians sent teddy bears en masse to recently-independent East Timor —

Nigerian teenagers make quality-looking special effects for short films with rudimentary equipment —

Curated technology links

Slack is 911 when your company’s tools and processes fail. This is the best take on what Slack is in 2019 —

How to build good software, courtesy of Singapore’s Civil Serve College. Might seem obvious in some ways but interesting for everybody —

All 166 (!) startups from Y Combinator’s Summer 2019 demo day — (day 1) and (day 2)

In praise of fast software, the best kind of software (speed is a proxy for efficiency) —

Why these social networks failed: in which are dissected the lives and deaths of lovely networks such as Friendster, Vine, Myspace, Path and more —

Subscribe here to get Sundry.

Sundry is a list of unrelated but interesting links, about 7 of them, sent every week. It is a distillation of what I read (80+ hand-curated blogs through RSS, for the last 12 years). 

Curiosity Satisfaction Guaranteed™.

Sundry: Bayesian probability, vegetarian > butcher, banana peels, troubles with mindfulness

On the fallacy of statistical significance study and the Bayesian approach to probability. Please read this and change your understanding of probability forever. It’s long but worth it —

On the origin of the banana peel comic device —

The U.S Navy will return to mechanical controls (instead of touch screens) inside their ships. The people who decided that touch is a good interaction model for driving vehicles must see for themselves if changing AC in a moving car with touch screen is at all possible. And, upon the realisation that it isn’t, they must be sent to that special place reserved to people who overdesign microwave ovens —

The 100 best movies of the last decade, according to Indiewire —

Some vegetarians are turning into butchers. The focus is on using the whole animal and selling less. This method won’t meet the current demand but it begs the question: is the problem eating meat or the demand? Should we just bow to it?  —

Streaming online pornography produces as much CO2 as Belgium —

There are troubling truths with mindfulness. Two main takeaways. One is the commodification of it (oversimplifying the complex undertaking of understanding ourselves, as meditation has become a quick-fix like watching Netflix). The second is the conflict between the Buddhist idea of no-self and the Western tradition that there is indeed a self, which is expressed in the “I”. Interesting —

Who’s responsible when an AI kills someone?

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With the recent news that an autonomous Uber vehicle killed a woman crossing the street in Tempe, Arizona, this ethical question is very timely. Here is an element of response published in the MIT Technology Review

Criminal liability usually requires an action and a mental intent (in legalese an actus rea and mens rea). Kingston says Hallevy explores three scenarios that could apply to AI systems.

The first, known as perpetrator via another, applies when an offense has been committed by a mentally deficient person or animal, who is therefore deemed to be innocent. But anybody who has instructed the mentally deficient person or animal can be held criminally liable. For example, a dog owner who instructed the animal to attack another individual.

The whole article is interesting as it delves deeper in all the possible scenarios. 

Lux Noctis is a beautiful, zero-trace series of photographs

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What’s zero-trace land art?

Recently Wu has evolved his process of working with the drones to form light paths above topographical peaks in the mountainous terrain. “I see it as a kind of ‘zero trace’ version of land art where the environment remains untouched by the artist, and at the same time is presented in a sublime way which speaks to 19th century Romantic painting and science and fictional imagery,” said Wu to Colossal.

See more photos over at the source link.

[Source: LUX NOCTIS]

One of the world’s most efficient human-only logistics network is Mumbai’s lunchbox supply chain

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In an era where many cannot imagine an efficient supply chain operating without the benefit of technology, Mumbai India has an example of a lean, just-in-time, 99.99 percent accurate supply chain operating without any form of technology.

In India, “tiffin” is a packed lunch typically prepared for working Indian men by their wives after they have left for work. These tiffins are delivered by the dabbawalla, of whom almost 50 percent are illiterate. This supply chain delivers home cooked food to the office in time for lunch, and then returns the empty tiffin-boxes by the end of the working day. In a crowded city like Mumbai where merely boarding a local train is a huge challenge, toting a bulky tiffin carrier and delivering it on time is a daunting task.

Started in 1890, today 5,000 dabbawallas serve 200,000 customers in Mumbai. This involves 400,000 last mile transactions per day (including the return of empty tiffin carriers) with an error rate of 1 in 16 million transactions. This high rate of dependability earned this supply chain a six sigma designation and an ISO 9001 accreditation.

[Source: Logistics Viewpoints]

Facebook will survive unscathed because it’s too important to many people

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First, a primer, courtesy of the Daily Beast: 

Zuckerberg has been publicly silent since the Observer and the New York Times reported on Saturday that Facebook has for years been aware that a third-party app, billing itself as collecting user data for research purposes, exploited sufficiently weak privacy settings on unsuspecting user accounts to accumulate 50 million profiles. The app designer provided the data to Cambridge Analytica, the analytics and messaging firm controlled by Donald Trump allies.

Facebook reportedly asked Cambridge Analytica to delete the data in 2015, but did not verify that the deletion occurred. Cambridge Analytica subsequently received approximately $6 million from the Trump campaign to aid in its messaging and voter targeting. (The company had additional contracts worth millions of dollars with pro-Trump political action committees.)

We must keep in mind that this is playing out in the bigger context of the Russian interference scandal. This is why the scandal rocked the US as a whole. So because of shady practices (allowing a dev to exploit their data) Facebook is in a very delicate position. There will be exits, there will be “big plans to fight for privacy” but Facebook will survive. 


Even though WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton (who sold his company to Facebook for around $19B in 2014) tweeted it’s time to #deletefacebook, what he doesn’t realise is that for many people around the world, Facebook is the Internet (Indonesia is the 4th biggest Facebook population (and the world’s 4th too)). Brian Acton also now works at Signal, a Facebook competitor.

So while a few privacy-conscious people from SF and NY will leave the service, utility-hungry people around the world are joining by millions. 

If you don’t pay for the product, you are the the product. As long as we don’t have a viable alternative, most of us are sticking with Facebook. Independently from the scandals and crises. 

[Source: The Daily Beast]

Bad news: Omega 3s don’t confer any significant health benefits; good news: They’re mostly harmless

But a wide-ranging, careful meta-analysis published in JAMA-Cardiology found no meaningful link between Omega-3s and reduced risk of heart disease. As Lifehacker points out, this joins reviews that show no benefit from taking Omega-3s for “dementia, depression, inflammatory bowel disease, or age-related macular degeneration.”

There may be a small improvement in breast cancer, and a small increased risk for prostate cancer, and if you’re seriously Omega-3 deprived, the supplements may be a good idea.

[Source: Boing Boing]

Bad news: Omega 3s don’t confer any significant health benefits; good news: They’re mostly harmless

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But a wide-ranging, careful meta-analysis published in JAMA-Cardiology found no meaningful link between Omega-3s and reduced risk of heart disease. As Lifehacker points out, this joins reviews that show no benefit from taking Omega-3s for “dementia, depression, inflammatory bowel disease, or age-related macular degeneration.”

There may be a small improvement in breast cancer, and a small increased risk for prostate cancer, and if you’re seriously Omega-3 deprived, the supplements may be a good idea.

[Source: Boing Boing]

The contributions of René Girard

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Tyler Cowen from Marginal Revolution summarises some of René Girard’s views in a very simple fashion. The first point, quoted below, reads a bit like the Nietzschean view but I may be mistaken: 

His understanding of Christianity as fundamentally and radically different from earlier religions, as it exalts the individual victim rather than the conqueror.  Here is one point from a summarizer: “Christianity is the revelation (the unveiling) of what the myths want to veil; it is the deconstruction of the mono-myth, not a reiteration of it—which is exactly why so many within academe want to domesticate and de-fang it.”

[Source: Marginal REVOLUTION]

“Oh My God, This Is So F—ed Up”: Inside Silicon Valley’s Secretive, Orgiastic Dark Side

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A long and thorough piece written by Emily Chang for Vanity Fair detailing the detachment of Silicon Valley’s sex parties. The men are… special:

When I ask Founder X whether these men are taking advantage of women by feeding them inhibition-melting drugs at sex parties, he replies that, on the contrary, it’s women who are taking advantage of him and his tribe, preying on them for their money.

The whole article is as entertaining as it is horrific. 

[Source: Vanity Fair]

Should we let tech companies run the world?

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Yes, like, even more than they do today. This is Tyler Cowen’s question and here are two views: 

Under one view, the major tech companies lucked into some pieces of rapidly scalable software.  They are phenomenal at producing and distributing such software, but otherwise they put on their pants one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.  They are not especially productive at marginal activities beyond their core competencies.

Under the second view, the major tech companies have developed new managerial technologies for hiring, handling, and motivating super-smart employees.  That is the reason why the tech companies have become phenomenal at producing and distributing rapidly scalable software.  But if tech companies turn their attention to other productive activities, they would do very very well.  Alex for instance thinks that Apple ought to buy a university. Or you might expect that Google’s “scallion fried fish” dish would be especially tasty.  After all, do not smarter people make for better cooks?

[Source: Marginal Revolution]

Why listening to music is social — even when you’re alone

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The article is interesting throughout but here are excerpts: 

Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, Ph.D., a research neuroscientist at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, has explored how music “creates the sense of social belonging,” as he writes in a 2015 paper, “Please Don’t Stop the Music.”

“When you’re home alone in your house, it feels empty,” he says. “And then you put on music and all of a sudden you feel better because you’re not alone. It’s not that literally you’re not alone. But you feel like you have company.”


The moment you hear a sequence of hierarchically organized abstract sounds we call music, a multitude of associations are activated in your brain. These can include memories, emotions, and even motor programs for playing music. Together they can imply a sense of human agency. That sensation is what sets music apart from other types of sounds. “The brain interprets the structure of the music as intentionality that is coming from a human agent,” Molnar-Szakacs says. “This, combined with all the associations evoked by the music, is what makes the experience social.”

And finally:

Our sense of others as represented by the mirror-neuron system, charged with emotion from the limbic system, can give rise to empathy. To Molnar-Szakacs, it is emotional empathy that can explain “why music can be experienced as a social phenomenon even when someone is listening alone on their earphones.”

[Source: Nautilus]

Loneliness is the brain telling you to be more social

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In one study from 2009, researchers used fMRIs to test whether lonely brains were more sensitive to threats. Twenty-three participants were placed in an MRI and shown a series of pictures, some of them pleasant, such as money and a rocket lifting off, and others unpleasant, including human conflict. They found that lonely brains respond less positively to pleasant images than non-lonely brains, and more strongly to images of violence and unpleasant social situations. Loneliness spurs the brain into a hyper-vigilant state, unable to relax. The lonely brain doesn’t passively take the world in, but actively interprets it as an unfriendly place.

Hawkley found that lonely individuals take longer to fall asleep, wake up more during the night, and sleep less deeply. “The lonely person’s feeling of not being safe, socially safe, could contribute to disrupted sleep,” she says.

[Source: Nautilus]

What if we turned prisons into universities?

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Imagine if prisons looked like the grounds of universities. Instead of languishing in cells, incarcerated people sat in classrooms and learned about climate science or poetry — just like college students. Or even with them.

This would be a boon to prisoners across the country, a vast majority of whom do not have a high school diploma. And it could help shrink our prison population. While racial disparities in arrests and convictions are alarming, education level is a far stronger predictor of future incarceration than race.

Elizabeth Hinton for The New York Times has an interesting point to make.

[Source: The New York Times]

Why You Can’t Eat With a Broken Heart

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Not being able to eat after heartbreak is caused by the “fight” mode your body enters after the breakup, according to ter Horst. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, whaich is the system that allows your body to respond quickly in the event of an emergency. Your pupils dilate, the pulmonary alveoli widen, and your heart starts to beat faster. Long story short: You’re going into survival mode. Having a bite to eat becomes a secondary concern. To help out, the body has found a way to suppress the inevitable hunger pangs: There’s fewer constrictions and relaxations of the muscles in your stomach and bowels, which consequently slows down the digestion of food.

In case you were wondering. 

[Source: MUNCHIES]