What I'm Reading (June 24)

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Less really is more, bagel rolling, how lucky we are, and the power and limitations of “following the science.”

“To harness this untapped power of subtraction in the future, we need to understand why we haven’t embraced it in the past. One likely reason adding has become our first instinct is that we live in a world that has conditioned and rewarded this mental shortcut. As any armchair physicist can tell you, we are surrounded by a universe that is endlessly adding complexity, following the second law of thermodynamics. Biologically, our animal drive to acquire resources (like food) and to demonstrate competence (by visibly shaping our surroundings) can pull us toward more. Certainly, as thinking humans, we don’t have to blindly follow the path laid out by physics or evolution. But even if we resist thermodynamics and our instincts, more recent cultural forces also work against subtraction. Human civilization is practically defined by addition: of technologies, of education, of culture.”

Is it better to add or subtract? Subtraction simplifies but simple is very difficult to achieve, perhaps that is why we more often add. From the website future.a16z, The Untapped Potential of Less.


This summer I bought an Ooni pizza oven and have dedicated a portion of my time to learning how to make a good pizza – spoiler alert, it ain’t easy as I easily incinerated my first two attempts. So there was a bit of resonance when I ran across this bit of New York history.

“As the demand for bagels rose across New York and New Jersey, a group of 300 or so bagelmakers banded together and reigned supreme in the bagel market for decades, ensuring its members better wages and working conditions while making great bagels. If and when employers didn’t meet their demands, union members went on strike, inflicting “bagel famines” on the city until shop owners buckled.”

GastroObscura bears witness to the skills of bagel rollers. Meet the Indispensable Bagel Rollers of NYC


Then there is another of my favorite topics, serendipity. How much of our lives is a lucky moment? Yes, a prepared mind, and body helps, but not everyone is granted good luck at the right moment. 

“Many meritocratic strategies used to assign honors, funds, or rewards are often based on the past success of the person. Selecting individuals in this way creates a state of affairs in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer (often referred to as the "Matthew effect"). But is this the most effective strategy for maximizing potential? Which is a more effective funding strategy for maximizing impact to the world: giving large grants to a few previously successful applicants, or a number of smaller grants to many average-successful people? This is a fundamental question about distribution of resources, which needs to be informed by actual data.”

From Scientific American, The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized


Consider this,

“Nonetheless, for all the dangers this populism poses, it should make us consider why there has been such a loss of trust in science and scientific authority. Populists are not wrong in thinking that too much political decision-making today is dominated by cliques of ruling experts and lifted out of the sphere of public deliberation and concern. Too often law and public policy are treated as the special domain of a small group of managers and wonks, speaking their specialist jargons and invoking their infallible metrics. But public policy is never the exclusive domain of scientific or technocratic knowledge. Maybe even more importantly, policymaking involves telling stories about what is politically and ethically significant. In fashioning the governing narratives of a democracy, the voice of science can be only one of many voices. 

… Deliberating over public policy therefore requires identifying the moral weight and meaning—and indeed the broadest possible consequences—of certain actions. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, this involves interpreting the significance of preventing the spread of the virus in balance with consideration of other public goods—including those of racial equality, education, livelihood, mental health, familial ties, and religious commitments, among many others.”

A politically neutral (is that possible?) look at the power and limitations of following the science, From the Hedgehog Review, Scientific Authority and the Democratic Narrative