This Year’s Best Bits- 2019

Here are the 10 best articles I read in 2019.

Once again, the real star behind the scenes is The Browser. For the last several years it’s been my favourite internet site, and one of the few subscription services I pay for. The Browser curates the best 5 articles a day from across time periods and across the web. The site is particularly notable for its breadth. The sheer daily variety helps you feel like a veritable polymath after only a few weeks of reading. I have The Browser to thank for many of these great reads.

  1. ‘Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything’ in Opentheory. Even though I probably only understood ~60-70% of this article it was still one of the most interesting things I read all year. In short, annealing describes how ‘entering high-energy states (i.e., intense emotional states which take some time to ‘process’) is how the brain releases structural stress and adapts to new developments. This process needs to happen on a regular basis to support healthy function, and if it doesn’t, psychological health degrades — In particular, mental flexibility & emotional vibrancy go down — analogous to a drop in a metal’s ‘ductility’. People seem to have a strong subconscious drive toward entering these states and if they haven’t experienced a high-energy brain state in some time, they actively seek one out, even sometimes in destructive ways.’ Meditation, music and psychedelics are three mechanisms to enter these high-energy states.
  2. Peter Thiel’s Religion’ by David Perrell. A long article on the thinking and philosophy of Peter Thiel. Thiel is so interesting, and controversial, precisely because he’s a deeply contrarian thinker. Thiel has been profoundly influenced by René Girard’s Mimetic Theory. ‘Mimetic Theory rests on the assumption that all our cultural behaviors, beginning with the acquisition of language by children, are imitative. He sees the world as a theatre of envy, where, like mimes, we imitate other people’s desires.’ Rather than being staunch individualists, we reflexively copy our peers, right down to intellectual fashions. One of Thiel’s most contrarian viewpoints is that dizzying digital disruption has masked a very real secular stagnation. Arguably his most famous quote is that ‘we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters’. This was the topic of a fascinating recent podcast with Thiel and his collaborator Eric Weinstein. Obviously just being contrarian doesn’t automatically make you right, and most contrarians are wrong most of the time. Thiel’s hedge fund was a notable failure. But there is a kind of VC-style asymmetric payoff to following contrarian thinkers that occurs when they are right and the majority is wrong.
  3. When Everything That Counts Can’t Be Counted’ by Josh Brown. I’m not generally a fan of all of Brown’s output but he does occasionally hit an insightful nerve. This article is a great, plain-speaking summary of the bizarre state of contemporary capital markets. ‘There are no asset managers who represent their strategy to clients as “We buy the most expensive assets, and add to them as they rise in price and valuation.” That’s unfortunate, because this is the only strategy that could have possibly enabled an asset manager to outperform in the modern era. It’s one of those things you could never advertise, but had you done it, you’d have beaten everyone over the ten-year period since the market’s generational low.’
  4. ‘Dead Reckoning’ in Damn Interesting. A long, rollicking, harrowing account of being shipwrecked in the Southern hemisphere in the 18th century. It reminded me of Shackleton’s remarkable adventures in the Antarctic in one of my favourite non-fiction books, Endurance.
  5. ‘Why Your Mind is Always Wandering’ in The Cut. My wife sent me an absolutely superb article about our ‘default mode network’ (DMN). ‘When you don’t give its human anything to do, brain areas related to processing emotions, recalling memory, and thinking about what’s to come become quietly active.’ We default to thinking about our personal circumstances. I suppose there’s a relatively straightforward evolutionary justification: the human that worries, plans and questions is more likely to avoid doing something stupid that puts their genes at risk. Paranoia trumps serenity. Problems arise as a result of too much rigidity; we get stuck in our DMN, running the same negative thought loops and worries on repeat. Like your tongue being drawn to a cut on the roof of your mouth, some people are irresistibly prone to ruminating on outstanding problems and worries as their default state.
  6. ‘How to Be Successful’ by Sam Altman. Yes, it’s a listicle from a 34yo VC. But Altman is unusually bright and has the benefit of seeing thousands of case studies from his time at Y Combinator. ‘The biggest economic misunderstanding of my childhood was that people got rich from high salaries. Though there are some exceptions — entertainers for example — almost no one in the history of the Forbes list has gotten there with a salary. You get truly rich by owning things that increase rapidly in value. This can be a piece of a business, real estate, natural resource, intellectual property, or other similar things. But somehow or other, you need to own equity in something, instead of just selling your time. Time only scales linearly.’
  7. Where is Kigali?’ in Granta. File this one under should read rather than want to read. It’s a relentless but worthwhile account of the genocide in Rwanda. ‘I asked how it was possible that so many had taken part in the slaughter, and that men like him hadn’t refused. Ndutiye searched his vocabulary for words a foreigner might understand. ‘There are times when you lose faith, when a man loses control and is under the influence of the devil.’’
  8. ‘The Story of Us’ in Wait But Why. WBW’s Tim Urban writes great deep-dives on informative and varied topics coupled with fun stick figure illustrations. His article on the Fermi Paradox was a classic, and he was very early to the philosophical dangers and fascinations of AI. The Story of Us is a nearly-book-length series on human thought, politics and tribalism. Urban is such a strong writer and thinker because he tends to tackle his topics from first principles. Readers of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens will enjoy the section on the power of stories. The whole series is good at exposing your own cognitive biases.
  9. ‘Five Lessons from History’ by Morgan Housel. Housel manages to be BOTH high-quality and high-quantity. His economic history since 1945 was one of the best reads of 2018, and this article from May 2019 was also a great piece. ‘The most important lessons from history are the takeaways that are so broad they can apply to other fields, other eras, and other people. That’s where lessons have leverage and are most likely to apply to your own life.’
  10. ‘The Interoceptive Turn’ in Aeon. I think I’ve read this article 5 times. I still don’t claim to understand it completely but I find the general premise fascinating. ‘In Self Comes to Mind, Damasio argues that ‘the body is a foundation of the conscious mind’: our brains serve our bodies, rather than the obverse — a seemingly provocative, but profoundly liberating idea that arises out of the oft-forgotten fact that life began without nervous systems.’

There you have it, the reads I enjoyed the most this year, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. Have a very happy new year, and a wonderful new decade.

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