The Long Game 32: Restoring Vision, Social Status, Mental Models, Engineering Scarcity, Tradition
💃 AI Girlfriends, Nature vs. Nurture, Siddharta, Preference Falsification, Headphones, and Much More!
Greetings from Casablanca 🇲🇦
If you missed the past episodes, you could catch up here.
In this episode, we explore:
Nature vs. Nurture
Let’s dive in!
While researchers restored vision on mice, I find this art-piece by Victor Vasarely to be a perfect illustration for this week’s episode.
👁 Reprogramming to Recover Youthful Epigenetic Information and Restore Vision
Another breakthrough in the longevity field happened recently. Here the abstract of the paper:
Ageing is a degenerative process that leads to tissue dysfunction and death. A proposed cause of ageing is the accumulation of epigenetic noise that disrupts gene expression patterns, leading to decreases in tissue function and regenerative capacity. Changes to DNA methylation patterns over time form the basis of ageing clocks, but whether older individuals retain the information needed to restore these patterns—and, if so, whether this could improve tissue function—is not known. Over time, the central nervous system (CNS) loses function and regenerative capacity. Using the eye as a model CNS tissue, here we show that ectopic expression of Oct4 (also known as Pou5f1), Sox2 and Klf4 genes (OSK) in mouse retinal ganglion cells restores youthful DNA methylation patterns and transcriptomes, promotes axon regeneration after injury, and reverses vision loss in a mouse model of glaucoma and in aged mice. The beneficial effects of OSK-induced reprogramming in axon regeneration and vision require the DNA demethylases TET1 and TET2. These data indicate that mammalian tissues retain a record of youthful epigenetic information—encoded in part by DNA methylation—that can be accessed to improve tissue function and promote regeneration in vivo.
The longevity revolution is coming.
🥉 Social Status
I had an interesting discussion yesterday with some friends about finding and doing what you love. Interestingly, we all agreed that doing what you love is the best way to live, but the good part was about finding what you love.
What if what you think you love is only determined by your social circle and is purely an imitation of the people you admire?
This question has some merit, but the problem with this kind of thinking is that it’s too theoretical. A lot of times, you can only know if you try it.
Are you sure you want to be an entrepreneur and build the future? Try building your company for a few years. There is no quicker way to know.
I like philosophy and self-reflection, and balancing between thinking and doing is often the way out of the conundrum. If you’re lost with a question, and you taught about it for a long time, try switching to “action mode,” especially when things are reversible.
The conversation then shifted to social status and was a good reminder that many people aren’t willing to be low-status for a long time, which is required if you’re building your company.
For a deep-dive on social status, here’s a great piece.
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🧠 Better Thinking
🗯 The Great Mental Models
I’m a big fan of Shane Parrish and Farnam Street, and after reading the blog for years, I got The Great Mental Models book. It’s a good summary of essential thinking concepts and a useful reminder of the most important mental models.
As we already mentioned in this newsletter (episode 17), some types of content gain from being consumed repeatedly. I think mental models and thinking concepts are part of those.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter about your “circle of confidence.” Knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know is extremely important to avoid making huge mistakes. When your job consists of doing very different things from one day to the other, knowing that you don’t know something, and finding the right person to get advice is instrumental.
A good thread about this 👇
⚡️ Startup Stuff
💎 Scarcity in a World of Abundance
How to create scarcity in a world of abundance? This interview with Eugene Wei is an excellent way to understand how to engineer scarcity in today’s world.
Here are some of my takeaways:
A lot of founders miss the emotional aspect of the solution.
You need to create the magic.
Measure emotional payoff.
Watch the body language of people.
You compete with the best in every aspect: understand that the competition is much bigger than you think.
Everything is a status competition.
Status evolves—it’s very volatile—you want to evolve to a utility thing.
The two ways to pay people are with ROI and ego.
Restrict the network at the beginning — restriction creates scarcity.
You need a challenge, but you need to show people they can achieve it.
Humans are wired to be very conscious of status.
For more, Status as a Service by Eugene Wei is a must-read.
📚 What I Read
This book was recommended to me by multiple friends, I got the audio version, and it’s a fantastic novel.
Here’s the plot:
The story takes place in the ancient Nepalese kingdom of Kapilavastu. Siddhartha decides to leave his home in the hope of gaining spiritual illumination by becoming an ascetic wandering beggar of the Śamaṇa. Joined by his best friend Govinda, Siddhartha fasts, becomes homeless, renounces all personal possessions, and intensely meditates, eventually seeking and personally speaking with Gautama, the famous Buddha, or Enlightened One. Afterward, both Siddhartha and Govinda acknowledge the elegance of the Buddha's teachings. Although Govinda hastily joins the Buddha's order, Siddhartha does not follow, claiming that the Buddha's philosophy, though supremely wise, does not account for the necessarily distinct experiences of each person. He argues that the individual seeks an absolutely unique, personal meaning that cannot be presented to him by a teacher. He thus resolves to carry on his quest alone.
👶 Nature vs. Nurture
The ‘nature vs. nurture’ question is one that I think about often. It was resurfaced this week in Rob Henderson’s newsletter.
Basically, the debate is between the “nature” side, led by Robert Plomin, author of Blueprint (this is a good episode to understand his thesis), and the “nurture” side, which can be understood in this article from Scott Barry Kaufman.
The question is to understand the extent to which the person we become is determined by our genes or education and the environment. It’s an essential question because it could help improve education on a global scale.
On the '“nature” side, our DNA determines most of who we are, and education has much less impact than previously taught. This idea is based on twin-studies that try to determine how our DNA impacts who we become:
Third, growing up in the same family and attending the same schools account for less than a fifth of the difference between expert and normal readers.
I still don’t know which side of the debate I lean on; I’ll read more about it in the coming weeks!
🏰 Tradition is Smarter than You Are
Back in August, I listened to Claire Lehman, founder of Quillette, on the North Star podcast; and she talked about tradition, and her ideas were thought-provoking:
We should use rationality and reason to guide our decision, but in knocking down tradition we might not fully understand what tradition was there for in the first place. It's important to acknowledge that tradition exist for reasons that we might not understand.
A good follow-up reading to the episode is this piece by The Scholar’s Stage. In it, the author explains why tradition is so important in our societies:
Henrich advances the argument that brain-power alone is not enough to explain why humans are such a successful species. Humans, he argues, are not nearly as intelligent as we think they are. Remove them from the culture and environment they have learned to operate in and they fail quickly. His favorite example of this are European explorers who die in the middle of deserts, jungles, or arctic wastes even though thousands of generations of hunter-gatherers were able to survive and thrive in these same environments. If human success was due to our ability to problem solve, analyze, and rationally develop novel solutions to novel challenges, the explorers should have been fine. Their ghastly fates suggest that rationality may not be the key to human survival.
In our quest to make the world legible, to understand it rationally, we might overlook what can’t be made legible, and that’s encapsulated in tradition:
The problem is that not all important things can be made legible. Much of what makes a society successful is knowledge of the tacit sort: rarely articulated, messy, and from the outside looking in, purposeless. These are the first things lost in the quest for legibility. Traditions, small cultural differences, odd and distinctive lifeways—in other words, the products of cultural evolution that Henrich fills his book with—are all swept aside by a rationalizing state that preserves (or in many cases, imposes) only what it can be understood and manipulated from the 2,000 foot view. The result, as Scott chronicles with example after example, are many of the greatest catastrophes of human history.
This exploration of the tension between rationality and tradition is crucial because it will determine human flourishment and progress for the decades to come:
If the transition between these stages was slow this would not matter much. But it is not. Once stage two begins, each stage is only two or three generations long. Europeans, Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Koreans born today look forward to spending their teenage years in stage five societies. What traditions could their grandparents give them that might prepare them for this new world? By the time any new tradition might arise, the conditions that made it adaptive have already changed.
This may be why the rationalist impulse wrests so strong a hold on the modern mind. The traditions are gone; custom is dying. In the search for happiness, rationalism is the only tool we have left.
For more, here’s a great article building the case for tradition from my friend Dan Stern.
🎙 Podcast Episode of the Week
These last weeks of the year are very intense, and I still didn’t get the time to edit new episodes. I promise to do better and be more regular on The Long Game Podcast in 2021!
Still, here are some episodes:
On The Long Game Podcast:
On other shows:
🇹🇷 Timur Kuran on The Portal: Preference Falsification (fantastic part on Turkey during Atatürk, and why the Westernization didn’t end up successful, especially interesting for the Arab world, and how to navigate modernity vs. religion)
🍭 Brain Food
💃 The AI Girlfriend
As much as I love technology and I look forward to a better future thanks to innovation and progress, I also think that some innovations aren’t necessarily great. Especially on the dating and romantic relations side, where things like Tinder, Onlyfans, and more recently, AI girlfriends change the landscape radically.
You might be familiar with Her by Spike Jonze, and it’s already happening in China.
Xiaoice was first developed by a group of researchers inside Microsoft Asia-Pacific in 2014, before the American firm spun off the bot as an independent business — also named Xiaoice — in July. In many ways, she resembles AI-driven software like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, with users able to chat with her for free via voice or text message on a range of apps and smart devices. The reality, however, is more like the movie “Her.”
Undoubtedly, AI will be very helpful to help alleviate the mental health crisis of our century, but it’s hard not to imagine that it could completely replace romantic relations.
Unlike regular virtual assistants, Xiaoice is designed to set her users’ hearts aflutter. Appearing as an 18-year-old who likes to wear Japanese-style school uniforms, she flirts, jokes, and even sexts with her human partners, as her algorithm tries to work out how to become their perfect companion.
Related to this topic, in China and India, men outnumber women on a massic scale, which is only going to make things worse.
Maybe I’m a little too conservative here, and I can’t accept yet what will inevitably happen, but maybe not! What do you think?
🎥 What I’m Watching
👮♀️ Don’t Talk to the Police
We rarely talk about law on The Long Game, but this week, I re-read Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini, and in chapter 4: “What’s Focal is Causal,” the author explains the tactics used by the police to get convictions from suspects. Of course, some of these convictions are rightful, but some are wrongful. It’s fascinating to understand all the ways that influence our judgment; in the chapter, the author explains that if a person is in front of the camera, we’re most likely to believe that this person is responsible for what happened. “What’s Focal is Causal.”
In any case, I wanted to know more about the question of wrongful convictions, so I watched the video below. Bottom line, if you ever find yourself in a situation where the police want to ask you questions, don’t ever talk to them, even if you think you’re quickly going to show them that you’re innocent. You can only make your case worse. ⚠️
🔧 The tool of the Week
🎧 Noise Cancelling Headphones
There are things where I like to save money and things where I like to get the best product there is. Fast laptop, subscription to services that help you work better and faster, and good headphones are a must for me. I spend more than half of the day using noise-canceling headphones (listening to Brain, Endel, or just rain on a window), so it’s one of the most important products for me!
I used the Bose QC 35 II for almost two years, and it was time to upgrade. I got the Bose 700, and I’m very happy with them!
🪐 Quote I'm Pondering
"Between stimulus and response there is a space," he wrote. "In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
— Susan David
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