The Long Game 21: Manhattan Project for Aging, 7 Powers, How to Live in a Simulation, Graeber and the Future, Decision-Making
🇮🇳 Indian Tech Ecosystem, Forgiveness, Spoon Fed, the Problems of Science and Academia, and Much More!
Greetings from Casablanca, Morocco 🇲🇦
If you missed the past episodes, you could catch up here.
In this episode, we explore:
Manhattan Project for Aging
Forgive and Be Free
Decision-Making is Overrated
The Indian Tech Ecosystem
Where Did the Future Go?
Let’s dive into it!
I recently discovered the Retrofuturism Movement, and I love the aesthetics of it. In one sentence: “If futurism is sometimes called a “science” bent on anticipating what will come, retrofuturism is the remembering of that anticipation.”
🧬 Manhattan Project for Aging
Last weekend I watched First Man, a movie by Damien Chazelle. Here’s the plot: Neil Armstrong, an American NASA test pilot, and his fellow Apollo Program team-members zip themselves into insulated suits and set out on a mission to land on the Moon.
What I found fascinating is the level of effort the American government directed to one cause: going on the Moon. The organization, the funding, the cultural importance of the project are incredible and contrast a lot with the level of competency and involvement we currently have in the West when it comes to big projects like this.
What if we could reproduce, or at least reuse, some of the positive aspects of projects like the Apollo Program or the Manhattan Project. It would enable society to achieve massive progress on the challenges of our century.
Aging and health is a great project that would benefit from such an approach. After tweeting this, Attila Csordas, founder of AgeCurve, longevity biologist, and philosopher, responded to me with the slide below to explain why an Aging/Healthy Longevity Project makes total sense.
When it comes to projects of this scale, there are two ways of acting to make things happen, as we will see below with the debate between David Graeber and Peter Thiel. You can try to change the system, or you can try to build something outside of the system — think Elon Musk not waiting for the Nasa to get better and just building SpaceX.
I don’t know what’s the best approach here, but it seems that having governments more aware of the longevity cause can only do good. In the meantime, we have to keep building in the longevity space, and hopefully meet in the middle.
📊 While we’re talking about health and longevity, I’ve recently started the Health Optimization & Longevity Community — a community of people committed to reaching better health and longevity, at scale. If you’re into these topics, fill in the form or respond to this email to join the group!
🙏 Forgive and Be Free
There’s no wellness possible without mental health. The sad reality of life is that we will get hurt, and we will potentially hurt others. I loved this piece about forgiveness and how it can change the course of life for the better.
Forgiveness, of others and one’s self, can be a powerful, life-altering process. It can change the trajectory of a relationship or even one’s life. It is not the only response one can make to being hurt or hurting others, but it is an effective way to manage the inevitable moments of conflict, disappointment, and pain in our lives. Forgiveness embraces both the reality of the offence and the empathy and compassion needed to move on. True forgiveness doesn’t shy away from responsibility, recompense or justice. By definition, it recognises that something painful, even wrong, has been done. Simultaneously, forgiveness helps us to embrace something beyond the immediate gut-reaction of anger and pain and the simmering bitterness that can result. Forgiveness encourages a deeper, more compassionate understanding that we are all flawed in our different ways and that we all need to be forgiven at times.
It made me think of this quote from Awareness by Anthony de Mello:
When you fight something, you’re tied to it forever. As long as you’re fighting it, you are giving it power. You’re giving it as much power as you are using to fight it.
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🧠 Better Thinking
⚖️ Decision Making is Overrated
I remember listening to Patrick Collison on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, and since then, I keet thinking about this concept that decision-making is overrated. Patrick explains that while focusing on making the best decision, people forget to make sure they end up with good choices to choose from in the first place.
I think that the question I would encourage people to think more about is, “How do I get to make better decisions?” as in, “How do I make sure the decisions I’m confronted with end up being better?” It’s not like, “How should I choose between option A and B,” but, “How do I make sure that both options A and B are as good as possible, and there’s also a C, D, and E, and that those options are great too?”
When you focus too much on decision-making, you forget to think outside the box and imagine other possibilities. It narrows your horizons.
It’s less on how do you make a decision and more about how do you jolt yourself out of the particular furrows that you’re in and realize the possibility space and the world is just so much bigger than perhaps people are thinking about.
So how to get better at making your options better? Some people are naturally gifted at this; Patrick mentions Michael Nielsen, for example. The solution might be to find your Michael Nielsen to make sure you always think of options C, D, E, and don’t stay stuck with options A & B.
⚡️ Startup Stuff
🦹♀️ 7 Powers — The Foundation of Business Strategy
We talked about moats last week, and I found this reflection very interesting, so I wanted to read more about moats before moving on to other aspects of building a startup.
Florent Crivello wrote an excellent summary of 7 Powers by Hamilton Helmer, a book recommended to me by many friends. I will read it at some point, but for the time being, this summary gives a good overview of the seven powers a company could try to develop as barriers against competitors.
Economies of scale and network effects are documented enough (see this a16z deck about network effects). What I found interesting here:
Counter positioning: This moat is particularly essential if you’re competing against big companies. By defining your business model such that incumbents have conflicting incentives, a startup can thrive and even overcome the big player, think Kodak, for example.
Brand: One of the most potent moat, but also a lengthy one to build. Florent writes:
Brands are so powerful that they seem to be Warren Buffet’s favorite kind of moat.
Internet brands are challenging traditional brands, but in the age of aggregators, it could be more challenging for brands to create a name for themselves. As we saw in previous editions, strategies like hype, building in public, and creating a cult are instrumental in building a great brand today.
📚 What I Read
🥄 Spoon Fed, by Tim Spector
I listened to the audio version of this book while on the plane this week, and it’s an excellent overview of all the problems of nutrition science today. I highly recommend it if you want to clarify your ideas about this complicated field.
What I found particularly compelling is the call for more personalization in nutrition.
🎓 The Problems with Science and Academia
Science is essential, and it’s what led our society to progress and reach a quality of life that our ancestors could only dream of. Still, today, there are a lot of problems with Science that endanger the future progress of society.
0.04% of papers are retracted. At least 1.9% of papers have duplicate images "suggestive of deliberate manipulation". About 2.5% of scientists admit to fraud, and they estimate that 10% of other scientists have committed fraud. 27% of postdocs said they were willing to select or omit data to improve their results. More than 50% of published findings in psychology are false. The ORI, which makes about 13 misconduct findings per year, gives a conservative estimate of over 2000 misconduct incidents per year.
This article made me think about all the other problems of science. For example, in health and nutrition, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are the gold standard, but even with RCTs, we can have flawed studies.
Here’s an example with an RCT conducted to assess the effect of long-term vitamin D supplementation on depression and mood.
If you just look on the surface, you might see a large-scale, long-term, randomized double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial and assume whatever it finds provides reliable evidence. But I hope I’ve convinced you that the devil is often in the details, regardless of the type of study conducted.
Understanding science and what we can and can’t conclude from studies is fundamental. For this matter, I revisited the series Studying Studies by Peter Attia, an excellent guide to dig deeper than the abstract of a paper.
While reading that, I found this thought-provoking piece about What Statistics Can’t Tell Us About Ourselves. The article is about the 95% threshold of statistics to say that something is significant.
In science, the situation is starker, and the stakes are higher. With a threshold of only five percent, one in twenty studies will inadvertently find evidence for nonexistent phenomena in its data.
The bottom line is that without good science and people able to recognize it, we won’t progress. The stakes are high, and the academic world of today seems unadapted to the challenge.
The mathematician Colin Percival writes:
In short, academic institutions systemically promote exactly the sort of short-term optimization of which, ironically, the private sector is often accused. Is entrepreneurship a trap? No; right now, it's one of the only ways to avoid being trapped.
🇮🇳 Indian Tech Ecosystem
I’m all for playing long term games. That’s why I called this newsletter The Long Game. If you want to build a business in today’s world, you can’t ignore the geopolitical landscape anymore. India will play a significant role in this century, so it’s worth paying attention to what’s going on there.
I’ve read about the Indian tech ecosystem this week. This two-part series by Vedicat Kant about Reliance is exceptional (part I, part II). The first part covers the origins of Reliance, from selling textiles to an oil company. The second part explains how Reliance got into telecommunications with Jio.
Mukesh Ambani, the man behind Reliance and Jio, was instrumental to this success (here’s a piece to understand the background of the richest man in India):
The key to understanding Ambani’s bet is that while all of the incumbent mobile operators in India were, like mobile operators around the world, companies built on voice calls that layered on data, Jio was built to be a data network — specifically 4G — from the beginning.
This bet enabled Jio to become the leading data provider in India in just a few years.
What I found very interesting is how Reliance is tied with Indian politics:
I think an easier answer is that Reliance knows how to work the system. I recently read this article by Mark Lutter, which argues that one thing that constrains Silicon Valley's ability to build is that it hasn't engaged seriously with politics. "Part of politics will be co-opting old institutions. Get innovation sympathizers in key positions of power."
Western companies (Facebook and Google, among others) have been rushing to invest in Jio over the last months. Ben Thompson wrote a great piece to explain why India is such a strategic place for the Internet. He describes the four Internets (Chia, Europe, US, and India), and India, through Jio, could be a crucial counterweight to China:
Still, Facebook, Google, Intel, Qualcomm, et al should proceed with their eyes wide-open: they are very much a means to an end for a company and a country that is on its own path. That is not to say these investments are not a good idea — I think they are — but India’s path is perhaps a more populist and nationalistic one than many Americans would prefer. Still, it is less antagonistic to Western liberalism than the Chinese Communist Party, and again, an important counterweight.
🍭 Brain Food
👽 How to live in a simulation?
A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true:
(1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero;
(2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor‐ simulations is very close to zero;
(3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.
Ever since I’ve read about this, I can’t stop thinking about it. This led me to read How to Live in a Simulation by Robin Hanson. It’s an excellent follow-up to the simulation argument paper. Robin Hanson explores the best way to live if we were in a simulation, depending on the assumptions you make about our descendants.
If our descendants tend to be more interested in simulating "pivotal" people and events from their history, then you should raise your estimate of the chances that the events and people around you will be considered pivotal to your descendants. You should also try to encourage this to happen, as it will make the simulators less likely to drop you from their simulation, or to end that simulation. If you can identify an especially interesting event around you, you might also try to prevent it from ending, as the simulation might end soon after the event does.
If our descendants like to play a moral God with their simulations, punishing and rewarding people in the simulation based on how they lived their lives, you might do well to live what they will consider praiseworthy lives. Of course you'll have to figure out the common features of morality in descendants who are willing to play God.
I still don’t know how to reconcile this with my general life philosophy: if we want to become a posthuman civilization one day, we’re most likely living in a simulation 🤯.
🎥 What I’m Watching
👩🚀 Where Did the Future Go?
David Graeber, the author of Bullshit Jobs and Debt, passed away on September 2nd. To learn more about his work, I watched this debate between him and Peter Thiel about the future and progress.
They don’t agree on how to make the future better, but they agree the future has to be radically different from the present.
Mr. Graeber starts:
Once upon a time, when people imagined the future, they imagined flying cars, teleportation devices and robots who would free them from the need to work. But strangely, none of these things came to pass.
What happened to the second half of the 20th century?
The main differences between the two are that Graeber thinks we should replace what we currently call “democracy” with a participatory system (of the sort of Occupy Wall Street). Peter Thiel believes people should spend less time trying to change the system and simply create things outside of it.
For a deep dive into Graeber’s work, I highly recommend Bullshit Jobs. I remember thinking about this concept many times before reading the book, and Graeber explains it perfectly.
We have become a civilization based on work—not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself.
R.I.P David 🙏
It was particularly sad to hear David talk about a longevity pill.
🎙 Podcast Episodes of the Week
I’m very interested in new forms of governance because governments are the biggest monopolies, they’re slow to change, and the problem is that the laws of a country are the most significant factor determining the success of this country.
This episode is a great reminder to why progress is essential, and how charter cities could help fix the urbanization problem in developing countries. If you’re interested in developing economies, you want to learn about charter cities.
One exciting highlight from the conversation is the response of Mark to Balaji’s idea of cloud cities:
Can cities start on the cloud, and then materialize in a physical space?
Mark thinks it’s highly unlikely for this to happen because the cloud community would need a very strong sense of identity and intense persecutions from other groups (Jews in Israel, Mormons in Utah).
🔧 The tool of the Week
Nothing new here, but Our World In Data is the type of tool that I use at least once every other week. Without accurate data visualization and research to get the best data, we can’t progress because the priorities and the main challenges of our time are unclear.
For example, I spent a lot of time on the Life Expectancy research paper. It’s beautiful to see all the progress we’ve made, more than doubling the average lifespan since 1900. I like to imagine how much lifespan is going to increase in the next decades. Instead of focusing on GDP as a measure of development, choosing metrics like healthspan could do a lot of good for everyone.
🪐 Quote I’m Pondering
The problem is not people being uneducated. The problem is that people are educated just enough to believe what they have been taught, and not educated enough to question anything from what they have been taught.
— Richard Feynman
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