A Few Things: The Song Of The Cell, Hacking Darwin, Gates Hard Core, Gombrich Little History, Die With Zero, Charts and News You Might Have Missed.....
March 3, 2023
I am sharing this weekly email with you because I count you in the group of people I learn from and enjoy being around.
You can check out last week’s edition here: Gell-Mann Amnesia, Extending Healthspan, The Intersection of Technology and Life Sciences, Where Are We Headed In Ukraine Conflict, Papic on Saudi Arabia, Charts You Might Have Missed...
This week’s edition will be a little shorter since it’s been a busy week at work and I’m now headed to LA to see my parents.
Believe it or not, that “♡ Like” button is a big deal – it serves as a proxy to new visitors of this publication’s value. If you enjoy this article, don’t be shy :)
Quotes I’m Thinking About:
"The "if I had time" lie is a convenient way to ignore the fact that novels require being written and that writing happens a sentence at a time. Sentences can happen in a moment. Enough stolen moments, enough stolen sentences, and a novel is born — without the luxury of time."
- Author Julia Cameron on how to find time to write (or do anything, really)
“When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest.”
- William Hazlitt
“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”
- Oscar Wilde
A. A Few Things Worth Checking Out:
1. Siddhartha Mukherjee is an oncologist and one of the greatest (Pulitzer Prize-winning) scientific writers of our time. Not only does he write beautifully but he also explains scientific concepts in a way we can all understand and remember them.
His three most famous books are:
His latest book, The Song of the Cell, including the incredible discovery of the cell and how it transformed medicine. In this podcast with Peter Attia, he explains the evolutionary drive to go from single-cell to multicellular life and unpacks the four different types of cell-based therapies and the problems they are attempting to solve.
He also provides the latest in gene therapy, such as CRISPR, the ethical questions around human gene editing and how we are only at the start of understanding and diagnosing the most complex human organ - the brain.
I listened to this one twice, and it left me amazed at just how beautifully complex the human body is.
My favorite bits:
How the cell brings the genome to life, and how Sid’s recent book fits into his prior work to tell a story [2:30];
How the germ theory of disease and an understanding of the cell fueled a big leap in medicine [9:45];
What is the evolutionary drive for multicellular life? [17:15];
Four types of cell therapies and the challenges of gene therapy [26:00];
The incredible revolution of gene editing with CRISPR [45:15];
Understanding neural networks: an example of the “sand in the eye” problem being solved [1:08:45];
Falling as the leading cause of accidental death: a liability of multicellular existence [1:25:00];
2. All the discussion around CRSPR made me think about Jamie Metzl’s book -Hacking Darwin. The book is a discussion of the sociological and ethical implications of genetic tools available to us today (including preimplantation genetic diagnosis, gene editing, and in vitro fertilization) and about the potential futures this might lead to.
Jamie is a technology futurist, Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, and World Health Organization advisor.
I’ve been learning more about IVF and fertility clinics recently from my friends at Recharge Capital, and it’s become obvious that the genetic engineering Jamie spoke about in 2019 is already a reality for some.
IVF as a market is growing due to multiple drivers, and as usage grows the technology is beginning to advance. Source: Recharge Capital.
Jamie’s thesis is that using CRISPR we can cure single gene mutation diseases like cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia (there are 10,000 of them). Soon we will go from curing diseases to choosing the ‘right’ characteristics for our children.
What traits would you choose for your children?
This sounds like a strange question, and you may say: “I’ll make them smarter, or I’ll make them taller or faster”. But then in machine learning parlance we could be falling for the “local maximisation” problem just like our ancestors living in trees would have picked better tree climbing or farming skills?
Now that we have these amazing tools at are disposal what shall we try to become?
Here is Jamie discussing his book at Google in 2019.
3. There are all sorts of myths and stories about the early days of Microsoft. David Senra at the Founders podcast had a great discussion about Bill Gates and the making of Microsoft.
You will never look at Gates the same way after you hear it.
4. Ever since reading Gombrich’s Story of Art, I’ve been a fan of his ability to concisely and beautifully explain big ideas.
First published in German in 1935, A Little History of the World tells the story of human history to children. Gombrich was first inspired to write this book at age 26, when he attempted to describe the complicated nature of his studies to a child and found the challenge interesting.
Though Gombrich is most famous for his expertise in the field of art history, this early work has impacted generations of children and adults with its relentless enthusiasm and curiosity for the history of the human experience. Translated into many languages, Gombrich’s history marvels at both the events of history and their implications.
Beginning with the Stone Age, Gombrich summarizes humans’ most impactful moments—the good and the bad—while imparting lessons and encouraging the reader to question what it means to be human.
And yes you could definitely argue that he has enormously biased, sanitized, middle Eurocentric view of history, but I think this book should be required reading for everyone given how beautifully Gombrich writes and how much he can explain in a few sentences.
5. If you have an hour free in London, go check out Royal Academy’s: Spain and the Hispanic World exhibit. It’s a landmark exhibition covering works of Goya, El Greco, Velazquez, but also beautiful maps and ceramics. It’s as much about the history of the Hispanic world as it is the Art.
Definitely use the audio guide.
6. Life Need Not Ever End. New interpretations of the laws of thermodynamics suggest the infamous “heat death” hypothesis, which foretells the end of all life and organization in the universe, might not hold - article by Bobby Azarian in Noema. Bobby is a cognitive neuroscientist, a science journalist and the author of the book “The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness and Cosmic Complexity.”
Life is a crucial part of the cosmic story because the growth of complexity and organization enters a new phase when biology emerges. Life is a special form of complexity: It has the ability to create more complexity and to maintain organization against the tendency toward disorder. In a universe expanding without limit, the ability of intelligent life to continually construct complex order may not be limited by the laws of thermodynamics in the way once imagined.
Therefore, the continual growth of complexity in the form of biological and technological organization — in other words, the biosphere and the layer of industry and technology that sits on top of it — does not violate the classical version of the second law of thermodynamics. Because the biosphere is an open system that is continually getting energy from the sun, it can continuously build and maintain order. Local reductions in configurational entropy (disorder) are paid for by the simultaneous increase in thermal entropy (heat) caused by life’s constant use of free energy. As long as free energy continues to be used and dispersed, the total amount of entropy in the universe increases, and the classical version of the second law remains intact.
Energy gets more dispersed as the universe organizes itself, and that is all the second law requires in this context. One could say that energetic disorder increases as structural order grows.
What this means is that the universe can grow increasingly organized through the spread of intelligent life, as long as it can find the free energy it needs to build and maintain the cosmic organization it constructs. Luckily, the universe offers a vast ocean of exploitable energy to beings that are intelligent enough to know how to extract it. In theory, a hyperintelligent civilization could spread through the cosmos, transforming all the matter in its midst into exotic forms of biological and computational machinery. This scenario might be hard to visualize, but it would not be very different from how life went from existing at just a single point on the Earth, not even visible with the naked eye, to covering the entire planet.
B. Die With Zero
If I measure the impact of a book based on how it changed my behaviour than Bill Perkins “Die With Zero” will be a Top 10.
Bill’s thesis can be summarised as follows:
Life is just the sum of your experiences.
Our goal in life should be to maximise our fulfilment, which is a function of maximising experiences, memories and our life energy (things that energise you).
Many people are just optimising or maximising their life along one variable: Wealth.
Bill thinks we should optimise over three variables: health, wealth and time.
Let me use a statistic to go deeper. According to the US Internal Revenue Service, the median age at which someone receives an inheritance in the US is 51. What is wrong with that? That probably means that 51 yr old had a 80 year old parent who at their death left their estate to their 51 year old child.
What good is money to the 51 yr old? Would it have been better a) if the dying parent had given the money to their child when the child was 30 and needed the money more? b) could it have been more useful if the 80 year old had worked a few years less, retired earlier and spent more time with their young kids?
What was the point of piling up money, only to give it to their 50 year old children, who probably didn’t need it as much.
You could do the same analysis with a charity the 80 year old endows on their death. Could the cash have been better used if it was given 20 or 30 years earlier?
Bill would argue that if you die before getting to zero, it’s like working for years without being paid.
If you want to give money to someone why not now? If you say it’s for the kids. Then how much money do you want to give and when is a better question than saying it all goes to them at death. Give it while you are living. Give it sooner.
On the time front, it’s important to think about windows of opportunity. You could be a billionaire at 80, but you are never going to climb The Great Wall of China at 80. You are never going to go on Safari to Africa with your kids then. Timing Matters. You only have specific windows to do certain things. When those windows close, they close forever.
On their death bed, every billionaire would give away all their wealth to just have another day. There are stages of your life. You can’t do all things at all times. Have to use the windows when they exist. We think of our death as one final date, but really there is a part of us dying everyday. Certain doors are closing on us every day.
What are activities that I can do now that I won’t be able to later. What opportunities are open to me that won’t be open in the future.
What are you planning on doing later? Why not do them now.
Maintaining health is critical to long term fulfilment. Time and wealth become irrelevant if you haven’t taken care of your health. Someone who is sick doesn’t care how rich they are, they just want to be healthy again. What investments can you make today in your long term health?
You can get a good overview of the book in this interview Bill Perkins did with Peter Attia.
C. News and Charts You Might Have Missed:
1. The Economist had a good article on China titled: Global firms are eyeing Asian alternatives to Chinese manufacturing.
Chinese labour is no longer that cheap: between 2013 and 2022 manufacturing wages doubled, to an average of $8.27 per hour (see chart). More important, the deepening Sino-American techno-decoupling is forcing manufacturers of high-tech products, especially those involving advanced semiconductors, to rethink their reliance on China.
Is China pricing itself out of low cost manufacturing or moving up the value chain to middle income?
2. US Copyright Office has determined that images created by AI are not eligible for copyright protection because they weren’t made by a human and they are trained on the work of actually copyrightable material. YouTube is working on generative AI tools that will assist in content creation.
3. Adult kids moving back home to live with their parents, or parents moving in with children used to be relatively rare in the US, but that’s changing. 1 in 5 Americans lived in multigenerational homes in 2021, up from ~7% in the 1970s. Even people buying new homes are increasingly looking for houses that can accommodate multiple generations of a family. 14% of buyers set up multigenerational homes in 2022, vs 11% in 2021. Half of Americans ages 18 to 29 were living with their parents in July.
The pandemic pushed families all over the country to stay together in one home and that trend has lasted even as the world has opened back up. Young adults wanted to dodge rent in big cities and moved back in with their parents in the era of remote work. And many young parents asked their own parents to come stay with them to help with child care as schools and daycares shut their doors. On top of that, many families are pooling their resources to buy homes that they otherwise might not have been able to afford.
4. Office occupancy has only hit 40-60% of pre-pandemic levels in the US while reaching 70-90% in Europe and the Middle East and 80-110% in Asia.
5. A brisk walk every day can help most people live longer. A study by University of Cambridge researchers found that only 11 minutes of daily exercise would prevent 10% of premature deaths.
Thank you for reading!
Ahmed, thank you for the amazing content! Really appreciate and enjoy going through your newsletters.