The Digest #136
Thought Experiments, TIPS, Adler on Reading, Time is Running Short, Ellington's Gift to the Queen, Thomas Jefferson's Travel Guide
Quote of the Week
“There are certain undertakings, moreover, that are not so much great as they are prolific, and thus lead to many fresh undertakings. Not only ought you to avoid those that give birth to new and multifarious employment, but you ought not to approach a task from which you are not free to retreat; you must put your hand to those that you can either finish, or at least hope to finish, leaving those untouched that grow bigger as you progress and do not cease at the point you intended.”
— Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind
Imagine that you are given an opportunity to travel back in time. Rather than just observing the world of the past, you will be given a chance to erase an invention. You can pick any invention, but your decision is not free from consequences. You will return to the present and have to live with all of the consequences of your decision.
When this question was asked on Twitter a few days ago, I responded with my gut reaction. I would rid the world of nuclear weapons. After all, it is my firm belief that nuclear weapons represent the most serious risk to the survival of humanity.
As you can imagine, there were plenty of other responses, including the irony of many people on Twitter saying they would disinvent social media. My response was serious, but I should have given the question more thought before I hit the send button.
After a few minutes of reflection, it occurred to me that I had failed to think through the logical implications of my choice:
Nuclear weapons represent a specific application of the discovery of nuclear fission. A nuclear weapon uses nuclear fission, but so do nuclear power plants. Nuclear weapons require a far greater level of uranium enrichment than power plants, and we should not confuse the technologies, but without the discovery of fission, neither would exist.
In an artificial thought experiment, one could disinvent nuclear weapons without wiping out the discovery of nuclear fission, but in the real world it is obvious that the discovery of fission would inevitably lead mankind to develop weapons. Of course, this is precisely what happened in just a few years during the Second World War.
If we disinvent nuclear fission, we would also not have the opportunity to harness nuclear energy, a technology that is of critical importance as the world continues to decarbonize in the decades to come. But maybe that is a sacrifice we should be willing to make to rid the world of nuclear weapons?
But we cannot simply stop at rolling back the discovery of nuclear fission. Scientific discoveries build on prior advances. We would have to travel back even further in time to erase the underlying knowledge of physics that led to the discovery of nuclear fission.
How far back would we have to go in order to guarantee that humanity would never travel down the path that would lead to nuclear weapons?
I have not conducted sufficient research to know exactly how far back we would have to go to expunge all human knowledge that would subsequently lead to nuclear weapons, but it is certain that we would end up erasing numerous important scientific principles that have applications far beyond nuclear technology.
Zooming out further, would I not be advocating the exact opposite of the enlightenment principles that I have always held as sacrosanct? The advancement of knowledge over the past several centuries has vastly improved the human condition. The Founding Fathers of the United States were men of the enlightenment, and I strive to be one as well. You cannot be a man of the enlightenment while pining for ignorance.
I do not have an adequate answer for how mankind should reduce the risk of nuclear war, but voluntarily calling for humanity to fall into a benighted condition lacking knowledge of physics can’t possibly be the answer. Humanity advances through the attainment of knowledge, not through a retreat to ignorance. My gut reaction to this thought experiment was an example of emotional rather than rational thinking. One must consider all of the side effects in any serious thought experiment.
Treasury Inflation Protected Securities
A reader alerted me to a steep rise in the real yield offered by Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, also known as TIPS. These securities differ materially from I Series U.S. Savings Bonds which I’ve discussed on several occasions. The table below from the U.S. Treasury website shows how yields on TIPS have moved this month. I might write more about how TIPS and I Bonds differ in a future Weekly Digest.
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The Gannon Compilation Andrew Kuhn compiled a 2,725 page document containing 1.2 million words written by Geoff Gannon over the past seventeen years. The document is organized by topic and fully searchable. I have been following Geoff’s writing since 2009 and highly recommend downloading this compilation. Geoff and Andrew are the hosts of the Focused Compounding podcast which I listen to every week and often link to in the Weekly Digest. (@FocusedCompound via Twitter)
The Man From Rivian Who Wants to Change How We Buy Cars by Sean McLain, September 17, 2022. The traditional auto dealership’s role as the primary distribution channel for new vehicles is under attack: “There are currently 27 states where dealer franchise laws dating back decades and fiercely defended by dealer lobbyists prevent Rivian and other electric-vehicle startups from selling directly to consumers, according to data from nonprofit EV advocacy group Electrification Coalition.” (WSJ)
Book review of My Years with General Motors, a memoir by Alfred P. Sloan, the early auto industry executive who had the most influence on development of dealership networks as the primary distribution channel for vehicles.
How to Mark a Book by Mortimer J. Adler, July 6, 1941. Those of us who attended public schools recall the admonitions to avoid writing in textbooks. After all, the books would be reused for many years by future students. These books did not belong to us. Old habits die hard, and many people refrain from making up books they own later in life. Mortimer Adler believed that the act of writing in books helps to provide real intellectual ownership of ideas by fostering a sort of two-way conversation with the author. Many years after getting over my reluctance to mark up books, I fully agree with this concept. (The Saturday Review of Literature) h/t @robkhenderson
Firing Line Interview of Mortimer J. Adler, March 13, 1970.
Review of “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler, November 13, 2015.
What I’ve Learned from Users by Paul Graham, September 2022. Important insights that startup founders should definitely pay attention to: “It took me a long time to figure out why founders don't listen. At first I thought it was mere stubbornness. That's part of the reason, but another and probably more important reason is that so much about startups is counterintuitive. And when you tell someone something counterintuitive, what it sounds to them is wrong. So the reason founders don't listen to us is that they don't believe us. At least not till experience teaches them otherwise.” (PaulGraham.com)
The Omnipresence of Work by Lawrence Yeo, September 2022. As someone who has worked from home for over a decade, one recommendation I can make is to have a separate physical space for working. I did not have this luxury until last year and physical boundaries for work definitely help. As for the omnipresence of electronics…that’s a more difficult problem to solve! “We are now living amidst the omnipresence of work. Even if we aren’t sitting down working, we are prone to continue thinking about it since the physical environment no longer reminds us to shift our mind state. In addition, the always-on nature of our tools means that we are perpetually reachable, as our phones contain the inboxes and schedules of both our personal and professional lives.” (More to That)
Misperceiving Life Expectancy in the Deep Past by Sharon Dewitte, September 14, 2022. This article is about a misconception regarding life expectancy that is surprisingly widespread. Very low life expectancies in the distant past did not mean that few people lived past their 30s. Life expectancy at birth was indeed very low, but this was due to horribly high infant mortality. Once a person made it out of childhood, he or she could expect to live several more decades. Even today, actuarial tables indicate that a newborn baby boy can expect slightly over 76 years, but a man who makes it to age 76 can expect to live an additional 11 years. (Sapiens)
The Paradox of Time by Sahil Bloom, September 21, 2022. “We are aware of the incredible value of our time but constantly take actions that are disrespectful of that value. We know how important our time is, yet we ignore its passage and engage in low value activities that pull us away from the things that really matter.” (The Curiosity Chronicle)
Sahil’s Twitter thread on this subject is even better than the article:
Duke’s Jazzy Gift for the Queen by Will Friedwald, September 16, 2022. In 1958, Duke Ellington wrote an orchestral suite and made just one copy which was given to Queen Elizabeth: “I was so thrilled by the beauty, the wonder, the majesty, the splendor of it all that I told Her Majesty that I was sure something musical would come of it. She very, very graciously said she’d be listening. And so I wrote a suite of six numbers which were recorded and the only record that was ever pressed, of course, is in the possession of Queen Elizabeth.” (WSJ)
Listen to Queen’s Suite:
Move Slow, Win Big with Thomas Russo, September 17, 2022. 1 hour, 51 minutes. “William Green chats with Thomas Russo, a revered global investor who’s beaten the market by a mile over four decades. Tom, who oversees $8.5 billion, is the Managing Member at Gardner Russo & Quinn and Semper Vic Partners. … He owns huge stakes in great businesses like Berkshire Hathaway, Nestlé, and Heineken that he’s held since the 1980s. Here, he shares the principles that drive his enduring success, along with key lessons he’s learned from three legends: Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, and Bill Ruane.” (Richer, Wiser, Happier)
Source Global: Cody Friesen, September 15, 2022. 40 minutes. “Water is all around us — quite literally, there is enough water in the air we breathe to meet all of humanity’s needs and then some. Engineering professor Cody Friesen invented a solar-powered device that captures this vapor and transforms it into drinking water. Cody began manufacturing these ‘hydropanels’ with his Arizona-based company SOURCE in 2014, and today they’re used in more than 50 countries worldwide.” (How I Built This)
Thomas Jefferson’s European Travel Guide, September 21, 2022. 46 minutes. “In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was a broken man. Reeling from the loss of his wife and humiliated from a political scandal during the Revolutionary war, he needed to remake himself. And to do that, he traveled. Traipsing through Europe, Jefferson saw and learned as much as he could, ultimately bringing his knowledge home to a young America. He wrote a travelogue called “Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe.” (History Unplugged Podcast)
Photo of the Week
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