The Long Game 100: Air Quality & Cognitive Performance, Less Information, Rippling, Forecasting
👨🎨 Dall•E, The Electric Car Pre-Order Problem, Heresy, Relentless, Startupy, ISS, and Much More!
Hi there, it’s Mehdi Yacoubi, co-founder at Vital, and this is The Long Game Newsletter. To receive it in your inbox each week, subscribe here:
In this episode, we explore:
Air quality & cognitive performance
The answer is not more information
Let’s dive in!
🌬 Air Quality & Cognitive Performance
Air quality has become a topic I’m greatly interested in. Here’s an interesting research paper showing how air quality impacts cognitive performance:
This paper studies the causal impact of indoor air quality on the cognitive performance of individuals using data from official chess tournaments. We use a chess engine to evaluate the quality of moves made by individual players and merge this information with measures of air quality inside the tournament venue.
The results show that poor indoor air quality hampers cognitive performance significantly. We find that an increase in the indoor concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) by 10 μg/m3 increases a player’s probability of making an erroneous move by 26.3%.
The impact increases in both magnitude and statistical significance with rising time pressure. The effect of the indoor concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) is smaller and only matters during phases of the game when decisions are taken under high time stress. Exploiting temporal as well as spatial variation in outdoor pollution, we provide evidence suggesting a short-term and transitory effect of fine particulate matter on cognition.
And here’s another one:
Applying methods of textual and stylometric analysis to all 119,225 speeches made in the Canadian House of Commons between 2006 and 2011, we establish that air pollution reduces the speech quality of Canadian Members of Parliament (MPs).
Exposure to fine particulate matter concentrations exceeding 15 μg/m3 causes a 3.1 percent reduction in the quality of MPs speech (equivalent to a 3.6 months of education). For more difficult communication tasks the decrement in quality is equivalent to the loss of 6.5 months of schooling.
Our design accounts for the potential endogeneity of exposure and controls for many potential confounders including individual fixed effects. Politicians are professional communicators and as such the analysis contributes to our evolving understanding of how pollution exposure impacts the execution of work-relevant skills.
Though we are cautious in interpreting the effect as a clean metric for performance, the effect size is around half that established in recent research for workers engaged in physical work tasks. Insofar as the changed speech patterns reflect diminished mental acuity the results make plausible detrimental effects of air pollution on productivity in a wider set of communication-intensive work settings.
To study air quality in more detail, pair these with:
The Best Air Purifier — I haven’t made my choice yet!
📰 The Answer Is Not More Information
This article is one of the best things I’ve read this year. It explains that more information is not the solution to our problems, as it often leads to more anxiety. Past a certain point, more information makes things worse.
Believing that everything will be better if only we gather more information commits us to endless searching and casting about, to one more swipe of the screen in the hope that the elusive bit of data, which will make everything clear, will suddenly present itself. From one angle, this is just another symptom of reducing our experience of the world to the mode of consumption. In this mode, all that can be done is to consume more, in this case more information, and what we need seems always to lie just beyond the realm of the actual, hidden beyond the horizon of the possible.
And, once again, this mode of being, with regards to navigating uncertainty, has the paradoxical effect of sinking us ever deeper into indecision and anxiety because the abundance of information, especially if it is encountered as discrete bits of under-interpreted data, will only generate more uncertainty and frustration.
One alternative to this state of affairs is to ditch the idea, should we be under its sway, that what we need to make our way in the world is simply more information. For one thing, there are practical difficulties: even in cases where more information might be genuinely helpful, it may not be forthcoming when we need it. But, more importantly, some matters cannot be adequately decided simply by gathering more information and plugging it into some sort of value-neutral formula. Indeed, we might even say that what we need to make is not a merely a decision but more like a commitment with all the risk, responsibility, and promise that this entails.
What we might truly need, then, is not information but something else altogether: courage, patience, practical wisdom, and, perhaps most importantly, friendship. Of course, these can be harder to come by than mere information, however valuable it may be.
This part on friendship is compelling:
But it’s worth reflecting for just a moment on the the last of these: friendship. I was thinking here of how isolation and loneliness, which I would sharply distinguish from solitude, can warp and disfigure our cognitive faculties. The more isolated we find ourselves, the more harrowing and disorienting the experience of uncertainty.
Moreover, if we do proceed, as we often must, without the benefit of certainty, venturing forth and assuming the real risks that must accompany our action in this world—especially once we renounce the imperative to control, manage, and master—then it would be a far better thing to do so in the affectionate and heartening company of friends who will sustain us in our failures and celebrate our triumphs. After all, it is easier by far to take a step into the unknown with another walking alongside of us than it is to do so alone. If I must bear the consequences of my choices alone, if there is no one whose counsel I trust, then it becomes especially tempting to seek both perfect knowledge and certainty before acting, and find myself paralyzed in their absence.
New technology often starts with the premise that more information will solve our problems, but creating tools that provide us with more information often undermines some other aspects of our lives and can leave us worse off.
In a talk Ivan Illich gave late in his life, he made the following observation: “Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge.” Then he added, “I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.”
I come back to these lines often, especially in light of the debilitating epistemic consequences of becoming too dependent on digital media to mediate our perception of the world. It may seem counter-intuitive to say that, in the face of the profound challenges our society faces, what we most need is the deliberate cultivation of friendship. But I also find myself thinking that this conclusion is, from one angle, inescapable. At the very least, it seems to me that we need such friendships as an anchor and a refuge from the disorienting tumult of the digitized public sphere and precarity of our social world.
Same idea, but with a funny twist:
Pair with: When Technology Takes Revenge
🧠 Better Thinking
🔮 Forecasting is Hard
Forecasting is hard because it’s easy to skip the question, “And then what?”
This article is a good reminder that forecasting is hard because every event creates its own offspring, which impacts the world in its own unique ways.
Two things happen when you appreciate deep roots.
One is forecasting humility. When you realize you can’t connect one dot without a million other dots entering the picture, you realize how impractical it is to predict what the world will look like in the future. Nobody in 1997 predicted that low energy investment would directly lead to Boeing making faulty planes, but it’s what happened. No Japanese policymaker managing food supply in 1946 knew how his decisions would impact interest rates in 2022, but they did. The absurdity of past connections humbles your confidence in predicting future ones.
The other is a wider imagination. The craziest events – good and bad – happened because little events, each of which was easy to ignore, compounded. Innovation in particular is hard to envision if you think of it happening all at once. When you think of it as tiny increments, where current innovations have roots planted decades ago, it’s more believable – and the range of possible outcomes of what we might be achievable explodes.
⚡️ Startup Stuff
🥇 Rippling and the Return of Ambition
I know it’s the third week that I share Riplling-related content, but I’ve been in a sort of rabbit hole exploring their product, vision, strategy, etc. I found this article by John Luttig excellent and worth sharing here.
The biggest takeaway I got from Parker Conrad is this:
"Today, the conventional wisdom on how you should build a company is that you want to focus really narrowly and build one extremely narrow thing and go very deep on it, and I think that a lot of that conventional wisdom is wrong."
SaaS wisdom teaches us narrow lessons: start by conquering a narrow market and expand from there, add at least as much in ARR as you burn each year, and build your product either horizontally or vertically.
Rippling rejects these norms entirely. It ignores the mimetic warfare of the Gartner quadrant. Its wedge was a data asset, not a narrow product. It doesn’t let SaaS metrics dictate its strategy.
Reminiscent of the foundational computing companies, Rippling shows what ambition in modern business software looks like. In the age of software incrementalism, Rippling is an anachronism.
I believe a similar approach can be taken for consumer SaaS.
Another point I like about Rippling is their culture: we approach things in the same way at Vital.
In the war for tech talent, many companies are competing aggressively on employee benefits, and even the number of work days in the week. Rippling’s ambition demands excellence over balance, which is not for everyone. The company’s core value is to “push the limits of the possible”, a refreshing contrast to the muted values of modern-day startups.
Rippling’s ambitious culture starts with its founder Parker Conrad, whose idiosyncrasies reflect a relentless focus on product.
📚 What I Read
We thought the concept of “heresy” was gone for good. We were wrong.
One of the most surprising things I've witnessed in my lifetime is the rebirth of the concept of heresy.
In his excellent life of Newton, Richard Westfall writes about the moment when he was elected a fellow of Trinity College:
“Supported comfortably, Newton was free to devote himself wholly to whatever he chose. To remain on, he had only to avoid the three unforgivable sins: crime, heresy, and marriage.”
The first time I read that, in the 1990s, it sounded amusingly medieval. How strange, to have to avoid committing heresy. But when I reread it 20 years later it sounded like a description of contemporary employment.
There are an ever-increasing number of opinions you can be fired for. Those doing the firing don't use the word "heresy" to describe them, but structurally they're equivalent. Structurally there are two distinctive things about heresy: (1) that it takes priority over the question of truth or falsity, and (2) that it outweighs everything else the speaker has done.
🇨🇳 Dictator Book Club: Xi Jinping
A great piece on Xi Jinping.
Getting back to the question: what should we make of Xi?
Should we argue that non-democratic systems are doomed to collapse into authoritarianism? Deng Xiaoping was a really smart guy, he put a lot of effort into trying to build a multipolar oligarchy, and . . . it doesn’t seem to have put up much of a fight. Xi just walked in and took over.
But what about the Soviet Union? Its government was similar to China’s, but after Stalin, no subsequent leader was able to fully centralize power. Just luck? One system keeps going for forty years without collapsing, and another collapses after twenty-five, not for any particular reason, just because of who held what position when? I’m not sure.
Reading about Xi increases my confidence in democracy relative to other forms of government. As non-democracies go, China under Deng, Jiang, and Hu seemed like one of the best. But under the surface, it was sprouting factionalism, patronage, and corruption, and when authoritarianism finally came for it, it put up such a pathetic fight that the whole thing ended behind closed doors and we’ll never really know what happened. RIP multipolar oligarchic China, you deserved better.
🧼 Relentless by Tim Grover
Tim Grover was the coach of Michael Jordan and Cove Bryant (RIP). His ideas around training, effort, and pushing harder than you think is possible are worth reading. You’ll learn how to become a “cleaner.”
Being relentless means demanding more of yourself than anyone else could ever demand of you, knowing that every time you stop, you can still do more. You must do more.
🎙 Podcast Episodes of the Week
This week in podcasts:
Balaji Srinivasan: The Network State
“We have gotten away from what science is supposed to be, which is independent replication. It’s become prestigious citation and insistent repetition.
But it’s difficult to falsify. Point being that you can build effectively a chain of custody for data. From the instrument, to the paper, to the chain of citations that leads you to the premise and conclusion you’re supposed to base your life on today.
And my counterargument was, you don’t need to stamp to send an email, you don’t need a TV license to broadcast on YouTube, you don’t need a radio license to do a podcast, and you don’t need to use old regulations to constrain the future.”
“I don’t like nepotism because it’s actually civilizational diabetes.”
"When you think ESG, think CCP."
🍭 Brain Food
This tweet generated a renewed wave of interest in the near-term capabilities of AI.
Here are some of my favorite Dall•E-generated images:
As a follow-up, I enjoyed this piece by Sasha Chapin, meditating on whether this new development is a net positive for humans or not.
So there you go. The good news is that your pictorial imagination is no longer limited by the significant bottlenecks of skill and resources. Humankind has now reached image abundance. The bad news is that commercial illustrators might all be out of a job, and, further, perhaps this is an assault on human dignity and autonomy.
Katherine Dee comes in with a characteristically strident statement of this perspective:
My take on this is, yes and no. Elaborating on this take will require encountering simple questions like, what’s art, what’s literature, and what is a human life well-lived. I’ll do my best.
Does human dignity depend on our being the best at illustrating?
🎥 What I’m Watching
🔌 The Electric Car Pre-Order Problem
This is an excellent video underlining that building a prototype is way easier than actually making and shipping real cars.
Pair with: Amp It Up: Leading for Hypergrowth by Raising Expectations, Increasing Urgency, and Elevating Intensity
No strategy is better than its execution — Frank Slootman
👩🚀 Has Putin Doomed The International Space Station?
Space exploration enjoyed decades of peaceful collaboration. It seems this era is behind us for good.
🔧 The Tool of the Week
📚 Startupy — Community Curated Database of Startup Knowledge
Content curation is becoming a vital part of a good information diet. Startupy lets you explore a curated collection of content, companies, topics, and people and flow between them based on their connections.
🪐 Quote I’m Pondering
The secret to optimization is changing the problem to make it easier to optimize.
— John Carmack
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