• Prioritising the Search for Good Books

    A favourite hobby of mine is research. Structured or unstructured, informal or scholarly. Deep diving on a topic, old or new, is my jam.

    For that reason, I spend a lot of time reading about the thing, rather than actually doing the thing. The meta-activities.

    There are clear negatives to this approach (limited impulsivity, slower decisions), but also significant upsides (conscious information consumption, higher quality decisions).

    This approach also applies to my reading habits, which is why I tend to only read books that I end up rating highly and why I connected with this comment from Paul Graham about a lesson he taught his twelve year old:

    There’s a second component of reading that many people don’t realize exists: searching for the good books. There are a huge number of books and only a small percentage of them are really good, so reading means searching.

    Someone who tries to read but doesn’t understand about the need to search will end up reading bad books, and will wonder why people who read a lot like to do something so boring.

    You’d think that figuring out which books are the best would be a solved problem by now, but it isn’t. I’m almost 60 and have been reading a lot my whole life, and I’m still constantly searching for the good books.

    Algorithmic recommendations, ‘best book’ awards, and ‘book of the year’ lists abound, but are not a replacement for the hard research. My favourite approach is shortlisting finalists from awards I respect, finding voracious readers who share detailed reviews, and actively talking with friends about books they read, before reading lots of 3- or 4-star reviews to help me make an informed decision.

  • Alt Codes and symbol.wtf

    In my work and in my writing here, I’m constantly searching for “ellipsis”, “euro symbol”, and “section symbol”, among many, many other symbols. For me, trying to remember even more alt codes is a futile endeavour.

    Obviously, when Sam Rose wrote this, I was excited: “Made a dumb website so I wouldn’t ever have to Google “tm symbol” again.

    And so started symbol.wtf, a site I now have bookmarked and visit at least once a week, simply clicking on the easy to find symbols to copy them.

  • The Nerd Urban Dictionary, or: The Overcomplication Compilation

    Seemingly frustrated at how ‘nerds’ throw around technical terms in order to sound smart, Chris Anderson (writer of The Long Tail, etc.) put together The Nerd Urban Dictionary to compile the most common and worst offenders.

    With terms coming from disciplines ranging from statistics to chemistry, finance to the military, here’s a small sample (mostly of things I’ve heard from the mouths of consultants):

    • “Priors” instead of assumptions; (if you want to get really nerdy, you can say “posteriors” instead of conclusions). (“All political discussion on Twitter is just people confirming their priors”)
    • Causal structure” instead of underlying reason (“There must be some causal structure behind why this happened”)
    • Non-trivial” instead of hard (“Shipping the code by the end of the day is non-trivial, boss”)
    • “Binary Choice”. A choice with only two options
    • Tautological” instead of obvious

    Important notes here are that Anderson agrees that these are all uncontroversial when used in the right context, and that his “instead of…” definitions refer to the (often incorrect) common usage, not its precise/correct definition.

    As an aside, I do take exception to the use of ‘nerd’ here. I’ve observed this linguistic signalling more prominently within the technolibertarian ‘tech bro’ and ‘finance bro’ circles, rather than the typically more wholesome ‘pure nerd’ community.

    As such, I have decided to call this The Overcomplication Compilation: a collection of words and phrases used to signal one’s in-group intelligence. Because, you know, regular words are for regular folks!

  • China, Cement, and the Great Wall’s Sticky Rice Mortar

    I’m fascinated by the scale of concrete usage in modern China, and some of the facts can be difficult to fathom on face value. For instance:

    China used more cement in 2011-13 than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century.
    • More recent USGS data show that this pace has only increased, with China’s 2020 and 2021 concrete production again outstripping the entire U.S. concrete production in the 20th century.

    Now I’ve just read about sticky rice mortar. As Liam said:

    “The Great Wall of China is held together with sticky rice” sounds like the kind of lie a third grader would make up


    Apparently, due to a lack of volcanic ash, more traditional hydraulic lime concrete wasn’t (widely) available, so sticky rice mixed with slaked lime was used instead, creating “a seal between bricks that would rival modern cement in strength”. Fascinating!

  • Create a Learning Guide for Any Topic

    Want to learn a new topic but unsure where to start (or even whether the topic is what you expect)?

    The Curricula is an AI-driven learning tool, that will develop a detailed learning guide for any topic you feed it.

    Developed by Mike Dyer, the Curricula will generate a list of pre-requisites/related learning topics, a summarised learning guide, and a detailed concept-by-concept curriculum for you to follow.

    The produced learning guide is broken down into roughly eight key concepts, each of which consists of links to relevant books, videos, articles, and courses to help your learning journey.

    I’ve already used it to plan out reading and watch lists for a few topics I’m interested in learning more about, and it’s been very useful. Fully recommended for the lifelong learner (alongside, of course, The Great Courses)!

  • Prediction Markets for the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, and More

    Each year I get caught up in the big film and television awards, trying to watch as many as possible and speculating on the various winners.

    I just discovered Gold Derby, a fun site for following and predicting the Hollywood ‘races’ yourself.

    Gold Derby takes predictions on everything from the Oscars to RuPaul’s Drag Race, where you can be a simple observer or compete against friends, fans and experts.

    I don’t ‘compete’ in any pools or anything like that, but I do like the setup of Gold Derby, where odds shift as time goes on, and users score points according to when they placed their predictions. I suspect I’ll be a member for the 2025 races.

  • ‘Locked’ Value, and Paying for Everything Twice

    How to account for the true cost and value of our possessions?

    In the same vein as Thoreau, who wrote in Walden: “the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run”, David Cain suggests that everything must be paid for twice.

    There’s the first price, usually paid in dollars, just to gain possession of the desired thing […] But then, in order to make use of the thing, you must also pay a second price. This is the effort and initiative required to gain its benefits, and it can be much higher than the first price. […]

    If you look around your home, you might notice many possessions for which you’ve paid the first price but not the second. Unused memberships, unread books, unplayed games, unknitted yarns. […]

    In our search for fulfillment, we keep paying first prices, creating a correspondingly enormous debt of unpaid second prices. Yet the rewards of any purchase – the reason we buy it at all — stay locked up until both prices are paid.

    With this approach in mind, it seems logical that for us to make wise and intentional purchases, we should consider how much value we might derive from an item, judging whether it is greater than both the first and second costs combined.

    I like the two-cost model, but wonder whether there are additional costs to consider, or whether these should be accounted for in the first ‘purchase price’. For instance: the research price, the storage price (not just physical, but the mental storage of an item whose second price has not yet been fully paid), and the disposal price.

  • How to Title Your Work

    Written as advice to visual artists (painters, sculptors, etc.), How to title your art is half rallying cry half tutorial on why and how you should give your art a title.

    As Claudia Dawson said in Recommendo, the guidance is useful for anyone who writes titles or headlines. Some points that stuck out for me:

    • Stand up for your art. Tell it like it is. Strong titles reflect what inspires you to make it, what personal beliefs it represents, what messages it is meant to communicate, and why we should look at and think about it.
    • Good titles help people to recognize and appreciate aspects of your art that may not be immediately obvious. […] Titles help viewers see what you want them to see.
    • [Cryptic] titles that do not obviously or immediately relate to the compositions or subject matters of your art can sometimes work in your favor. But they have to be well-thought-out. Good ones can intrigue viewers to the point where they spend time trying to figure out their meanings, like captivating mysteries or riddles.
    • Use titles that seduce viewers into taking longer looks, and maybe even ask questions. Unexpected or uncommon titles engage viewers in ways that ordinary or common titles don’t.
    • Unusual words or word combinations tend to attract more interest and attention than ordinary ones. At the very least, they slow people down. […] Be careful though. You want to use these kinds of words only when they relate directly to something about your art, and not use them gratuitously or to try and game the system.
  • A Visual Technique Library for Film Shots

    From the common to the lesser-seen cinematographic techniques, Eyecandy is a “visual technique library” for film shots.

    A database of over 5,000 GIFs, organised into around 100 different techniques, you select the technique and you get a short description and a wall of example clips.

    While I love movies, I’m certainly a cinematography neophyte, so it’s nice to be able to browse some techniques to learn new things.

  • Video Clip Search Tool

    As both a movie lover and a Xennial, I still (unashamedly) send a lot of video clips and gifs when texting with friends.

    If nothing apt comes up immediately, there’s a couple of sites I use where I can enter any phrase and immediately get a clip of it being said in various films and TV shows: PlayPhrase.me and YARN.

    If this is something you like to do, too, then these are pretty useful web apps to have in your bookmarks.