World Limits

I’ve been thinking about the limits of my world, specifically as it relates to my ability to understand it. Much of the time, I operate as if I have access to capital-T Truth, that I have some connection with facts about the world. It’s easy to fall into this kind of thinking – when I can predict and explain events, it gives me feedback that I know things about the world in a meaningful sense.

But I also know that this confidence in my knowledge is not as strong as I assume it to be. I have to remind myself to adjudicate the claims I encounter, or to remind myself of the difference between history and the past. It’s also good to listen to others who have learned about issues from multiple vantage points (see this amazing conversation on the Tim Ferriss podcast with Noah Feldman, and his experiences with constitution building in the Middle East).

Generally speaking, all of our experience in life has presented us with a mostly successful set of interactions with the world, but those interactions are subjective and limited. Taking the long view of world events, learning new languages, and empathy provide the Archimedean point beyond ourselves to attempt to stand on some point of objectivity (if this is even possible).

As Wittgenstein says, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This shouldn’t be literally taken to mean language (though I’m assuming that’s what Wittgenstein meant), but we should apply this to our understanding vis a vis experience. The limits of my world are constrained by the limits of my experience and the mental framework I use to make sense of it. If I want to seek to expand my worldview, it’s important to both prune out the dead branches of knowledge while cultivating new seeds of wisdom.

Stay Awesome,


The Last Person to Know Everything

On a recent CBC podcast episode about Leibniz and Voltaire’s thoughts about evil and God, one of the interviewees referred to Leibniz as “the last man to know everything.” I find this notion utterly fascinating. Upon hearing that title, I jumped online to search for the “best biography on Leibniz” and found a highly acclaimed book detailing an intellectual biography of the 17th-century thinker. Once I clear some books on my current reading list, I’ll dive into this hefty book.

“Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography” by Maria Rosa Antognazz

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the moniker of “the last person who knew everything.” In fact, that was the title of a biography I read back in late 2018 on Enrico Fermi.

I’ve been drawn to this idea for a long time, probably originating with the first time I saw the 1994 film Renaissance Man starring Danny DeVito. That was where I first learned of the term renaissance man, or more commonly known as a polymath – a person with considerable knowledge and expertise across a wide variety of domains. While I wouldn’t quite call it a goal, this is an aspiration of mine since I was a child.

I suppose as the sciences progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to lay claim to being “the last person who knew everything.” Each field grows increasingly complex as we push the boundaries of the known world, which raises the threshold higher of what counts as expertise.

It would seem we need to seriously consider the observation recently made by Professor Adam Grant on the differences between experience and expertise:

Instead of seeking to always have depth of knowledge, perhaps we should give equal consideration to wisdom and how we can apply our experiences and expertise to solve interesting problems. While more nebulous as a goal, I think it steers us in the right direction. At the very least, it’s a good vision to aspire towards.

Stay Awesome,


PS – an unexhaustive list of the traits that distinguishes a “last person who knew everything:”

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Intellectual humility
  • Interests spanning a variety of domains, both sciences and arts
  • A grasp of the methods and tools of science
  • Generating novel insights
  • The ability to see problems in terms of first principles
  • Engaging in idea arbitrage
  • Focus and flow in work – liking what you do

My Best Interest

If you want a good newsletter, you should check out Arnold Schwarzenegger’s newsletter. I signed up a few months back and have thoroughly enjoyed each update. I find him such a fascinating and inspiring person, not just from his bodybuilding work, his acting career, or even his time in politics, but above all because he strikes me as a fundamentally decent person.

He made two interrelated observations in the latest issue that stuck out for me. A significant portion of the email dealt with his clarifying and elaborating on his viral “screw your freedoms” moment during an interview talking about why people should get their vaccines. In his expanded comments, he urges his readers to pay attention to the motivations of people trying to give them advice, and discard those opinions which are not in your best interest (including his own). By this, he means fitness influencers and politicians, whose motivations are clicks and ad revenue in the former, as well as outrage, donations, and votes in the latter. When it comes to your health, these people are not giving advice based on your own health and wellbeing.

The second related comment is that if you can’t trust government or social media, who should you trust? To that, he says you should trust your doctor because your doctor took an oath to protect you. Your doctor is paid with only one expectation in return – the promotion of your wellbeing and health.

Talk to your doctor, not people who don’t have your health as their main responsibility. The Instagram and Facebook accounts you follow that give information on vaccines are not concerned about your health. They are concerned with getting more followers and making money.

I have seen way too many stories about people who listened to politicized information about the vaccine instead of their doctors, and then changed their minds when it was too late.

At the end of the day, everyone has to make their own decision about getting vaccinated. But if I can inspire even a few of you or your friends or family to avoid another one of these tragic stories that tore families apart, I want to do it.

He urges us to trust the experts and take wisdom from their experience. When presented with advice, we should ask ourselves what the advice-giver gets in return for our compliance. Do they benefit from our participation? What do we lose by their gain? These are important checks that we should make when deciding what’s in our best interest.

Stay Awesome,


The Insidious Internet Business

I love Hank and John Green from the vlogbrothers YouTube channel. I don’t know how they manage to crank out so many thoughtful videos, but each time I check-in, I’m treated to another video where they somehow connect a thoughtful musing into a reflection of substance.

Feel free to check out the full video of one of Hank’s recent entries “Wrong on the Internet,” but below I have captured some of the interesting points that connected with thoughts I’ve had and resonated with me.

  • Layperson epistemology – it’s difficult for the average layperson to make sense of conflicting/contrary pieces of information when the business of the internet is motivated towards churning out content that screams for your attention.
  • Similar to the incompleteness theorem, solutions we create for problems will be temporary until we innovate new solutions based on updated information and advances in technology. This can bring about cynicism related to Kuhnian-style revolutions of our worldviews, that problems never seem to go away.
  • The internet business is not an information game, it’s a rhetoric game. Rhetoric is the prime mover of information, especially when hard data is absent. You can whinge about how “the other side” is devoid of logic and refuses to see the truth before their eyes, or you can accept this as a fact and play the game to win the rhetoric game.
  • Memes (of the information variety, not the funny pictures kind) that make you feel good smug are super dangerous for distracting the issues. Corporations might be the biggest cause of our climate or capitalist problems, but we can’t just immediately remove them and expect all our woes to be solved. The services they provide are still required for society to function.
  • Shifting blame breeds complacency. Instead, personal accountability and action at the individual level are still important.
  • A problem well-formed is half solved, but the internet business is not about forming good problems. In our smugness, we play games to win or gain prestige, and so reactions move far quicker and are easier than responses. In order to create well-formed problems, we need to place greater value on responding to solutions, articulating our values, and using tools like science, politics, and economics to optimize according to our values. (h/t to Seth Godin’s thinking that influenced me here)
  • On the topic of responding to emergencies (starting at 2:40 of the video), it’s important to remember in our smugness that we are not, in fact, rational creatures.
  • The insidious effect of the internet business: “If the tweet makes us feel good, we don’t tend to spend a lot of time doing a bunch of research to tell us whether or not it actually is good.”

Stay Awesome,


The Right Season To Learn

Something that I’ve started taking more seriously as of late is the idea that there is a seasonality to learning some things in life. In this case, I mean “seasonality” not in the calendar sense that we experience during the year (Spring, Summer, etc.), but more in a broad metaphorical sense, such as seasons of life. I think there are seasons of our lives where certain lessons are easier to learn than others. This is not to say that you can’t learn them outside of the “right” season, but that some lessons are easier to learn at certain points in your life.

For instance, I’ve heard complaints about the secondary school system’s curriculum not teaching useful skills. Where the modern high school student is wasting their time learning about Shakespeare, the argument goes, they should instead be focusing their attention on more practical matters such as learning how to budget.

I’ve long been skeptical of this criticism for two reasons. First, I don’t think it should be the job of the school to teach every skill that’s deemed important. When people complain that they didn’t learn useful things in school like how to do laundry, how to eat properly, how to do taxes, etc., I place the blame of the lack of skills on them and their parents. Those bits of know-how are readily searchable online now, and short of an accessibility issue with being able to use technology, I see no reason for being ignorant. No, instead, I see school as the domain of more specialized knowledge that would be challenging to teach in the home environment by your parents who otherwise might not be skilled in teaching subjects like the maths, sciences, and humanities.

However, the second reason why I don’t find those arguments persuasive is that there are some concepts that are not easily absorbed at that time of your life. I can only speak from my experience, but when I was a teen, I wasn’t earning an income to support myself, nor was I carrying the bills and debts that would require me to keep a budget. I didn’t have the frame of reference, experience, or need to learn those kinds of skills. Instead, I understood what it meant to set up a budget, but not how to actually keep it.

I’m finding the same for home repair during this season of my life. Prior to owning my own home (where I am directly responsible for its upkeep and my family’s comfort and security), I didn’t feel an incentive to invest time and energy into learning how to maintain the home. Growing up, I would help with the chores and some light maintenance, but otherwise my parents largely were the ones who did the important stuff with troubleshooting problems. Now, those responsibilities fall squarely on my shoulders, and I’ve had a number of instances where I’ve had to pay costly invoices to tradespeople for repairs and work that largely could have been handled by me had I possessed a better understanding of how my home worked.

This is not to say that people don’t learn these skills when they are young. Whether it is through personal interested, a keen disposition, or a patient and knowledgeable parent/mentor, plenty of people know how to do amazing things by hand that puts my simple repairs to shame. Nevertheless, I have now reached a season where I’m more receptive to these lessons, and I’m embracing them with an open mind and a willingness to try.

Stay Awesome,


Friday Round-up – May 1, 2020

Note – this is an experimental posting format. I’ve thought about increasing the number of posts I commit to per week, but I don’t want to add unnecessary work if I’m not willing to stick it out. Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s really hard to get a single post out each Monday that I’m satisfied with, so increasing my posting frequency just to for the sake of increasing my output is a terrible idea. I will run a short experiment to see how easy it is for me to get out a Friday Round-up for the next month. If the experiment goes well, I’ll consider making it a part of the regular rotation. You can find the first round-up post here from April 24th.

Have you ever noticed the tendency that when you’re thinking about a topic, you seem to notice it everywhere? I first became aware of its phenomenology back in my university days, where stuff that I was learning in my lectures seemingly popped up randomly in my non-class time. Turns out, there is a word for that feeling – the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also known as the frequency bias. It’s why you start to see your car’s model everywhere after buying one. I bring this up because today’s articles are all loosely connected with scientific literacy in the digital age (especially as it relates to COVID). The more I read about thoughts concerning how to understand research about the pandemic, the more content I noticed about the topic of scientific literacy in general. This might be the phenomenon/my bias at play, or maybe the algorithms that govern my feeds are really in tune with my concerns.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on May 1st:

📖Article – What You Need to Know about Interpreting COVID-19 Research | The Toronto Star

My round-up for the week started with this short article that was open in one of my browser tabs since last week. There is a lot of information floating around in our respective feeds, and most of it can charitably be called inconclusive (and some of it is just bad or false). We’ve suddenly all become “experts” in epidemiology over the last month, and I want to remind myself that just because I think I’m smart, doesn’t mean I have the context or experience to understand what I’m reading. So, this article kicked off some light reflection on scientific and data literacy in our media landscape.

📖Article – Experts Demolish Studies Suggesting COVID-19 is No Worse Than Flu | Ars Technica

This next piece pairs nicely with our first link, and includes reporting and discussion of recent flair ups on Twitter criticizing recent studies. Absent of the pressure being applied by the pandemic, what this article describes is something that normally takes place within academic circles – experts putting out positions that are critiqued by their peers (sometimes respectfully, sometimes rudely). Because of the toll the pandemic is exacting on us, these disagreements are likely more heated as a result, which are taken to be more personally driven. I link this article not to cast doubt over the validity of the scientific and medical communities. Rather, I am linking to this article to highlight that our experts are having difficulty grappling with this issues, so it’s foolish to think us lay-people will fare any better in understanding the situation. Therefore, it’s incumbent on journalists to be extra-vigilant in how they report data, and to question the data they encounter.

📽Video – Claire Wardle: Why Do We Fall for Misinformation | NPR/TED

The Ars Technica piece raises a lot of complex things that we should be mindful of. There are questions such as:

  • Who should we count as authoritative sources of information?
  • How do we determine what an authoritative source of information should be?
  • What role does a platform like Twitter play in disseminating research beyond the scientific community?
  • How much legitimacy should we place on Twitter conversations vs. gated communities and publication arbiters?
  • How do we detangle policy decisions, economics, political motives, and egos?
  • How much editorial enforcement should we expect or demand from our news sources?

There are lots of really smart people who think about these things, and I’m lucky to study at their feet via social media and the internet. But even if we settle on answers to some of the above questions, we also have to engage with a fundamental truth about our human condition – we are really bad at sorting good information from bad when dealing at scale. Thankfully, there are people like Claire Wardle, and her organization FirstDraft that are working on this problem, because if we can’t fix the signal to noise ratio, having smart people fixing important problem won’t amount to much if we either don’t know about it, or can’t action on their findings. I was put onto Claire Wardle’s work through an email newsletter from the Centre for Humane Technology this week, where they highlighted a recent podcast episode with her (I haven’t had time to listen to it as of writing, but I have it queued up: Episode 14: Stranger Than Fiction).

📖 Essay – On Bullshit | Harry Frankfurt

All of this discussion about knowledge and our sources of it brought me back to grad school and a course I took on the philosophy of Harry Frankfurt, specifically his 1986 essay On Bullshit. Frankfurt, seemingly prescient of our times, distinguishes between liars and bullshitters. A liar knows a truth and seeks to hide the truth from the person they are trying to persuade. Bullshit as a speech act, on the other hand, only seeks to persuade, irrespective of truth. If you don’t want to read the essay linked above, here is the Wikipedia page.

I hope you find something of value in this week’s round-up and that you are keeping safe.

Stay Awesome,