Best things I read this year

This is a list of the best media I consumed last year.

AI and the limits of language – Yann LeCun & Jacob Browning

With the hype around large language models, the authors make a compelling argument about the relationship between thought and language. Language is not thought or sentience, and can never be human-like in any real sense.

For more about how large language models like GPT work, check out this paper for a detailed explainer and a comparison between Humans and Large Language Models. Also see this rebuttal to the idea that Google’s large language model is sentient.

Abandoning the view that all knowledge is linguistic permits us to realize how much of our knowledge is nonlinguistic. While books contain a lot of information we can decompress and use, so do many other objects: IKEA instructions don’t even bother writing out instructions alongside its drawings; AI researchers often look at the diagrams in a paper first, grasp the network architecture and only then glance through the text; visitors can navigate NYC by following the red or green lines on a map.

What does a Batsman See? – SB Tang

This article is ostensibly about cricket (It’s in a magazine called Cricket Monthly!). However, I read it as a metaphor for life. Experts and amateurs look at the same things and see different things. What does a professional batsman see? I used to think that reflexes were about quick responses after observing an action. In reality, at the highest level, the fastest reflexes are about action after accurate prediction. It’s predictive, not reactive. They don’t have faster muscles, they have better ability to predict what’s going to happen, faster and quicker than anyone else, and act on that information.

Well, science now tells us that elite batsmen aren’t much different: they know where the ball is going to be before it gets there and saccade their vision to that point. That’s how they appear to have such quick reflexes.

Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Decisions Worth Making – Tony Fadell

If you build products for a living, you should read this book. In the interviews leading up to the release of the book, Fadell said how this is a collection of answers to the questions he gets asked the most. And boy, does it deliver. Tony Fadell has strong opinions about everything – hiring, the integration of product development and marketing, curating and managing a comprehensive product experience and much more. You won’t always agree with everything, but you’ll have to think carefully why you disagree with someone who helped create the iPod and the wildly successful Nest line of products.

Reversion to the mean – the real long Covid – John Luttig

A thoughtful note in May 2022 that foreshadowed the wave of technology layoffs through the end of the year. Despite Sequoia’s predictions of doom, the pandemic ended up being a good thing for founders and entrepreneurs, at least in the short term. More people were buying things online, and valuations were up and to the right to the new normal. However, by May 2022, most of those gains had been erased.

I’ve included my favorite chart from the article below.

Maybe e-commerce is not accelerating as much as we thought

There’s so much more in the article about what this means for investors and entrepreneurs. It appears, only a small subset of these long-term trends are permanent, if any.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Sandy Kempner on Fintech One-On-One podcast: This podcast opened my mind to the amazing world of working capital financing. The more credit is available, the more valuable “niche” solutions can be. I’m also fascinated because the product has its own growth loop embedded in it.
  2. So You Want to be the next Warren Buffet, How’s your Writing? : Investing is hard, we’re doomed to suck at it. And good work only comes from doing something consistently over a long period of time. And luck.
  3. My First Impressions of Web3: One of the more balanced takes on Web3 in a long time. You don’t have to agree with everything, but participants in this ecosystem must have a point of view about the points raised otherwise, they’re choosing to have their heads in the sand.

The best books I read in 2020

What a year 2020 has been. The below is a list of the books I read this year. For me, the best books are those that if they were the only books I read, it would still be a good year of reading. 

“The Halo Effect…. And the eight other business delusions that deceive Managers” by Phil Rosenzweig 

Everything we know about how businesses become successful is coloured by one of these delusions. The author goes through several delusions and dismantles them. My favourite delusion: We attribute a company’s success to anything in sight – culture, leadership, strategy, etc. When a company is not successful, we attribute its failure to the same things. All the attribution is based on prior performance. After reading this book, you’ll never look at another business book or article the same way again.

“How to take smart notes” by Sonnke Ahrens

In order to develop a good question to write about or find the best angle for an assignment, one must already have put some thought in the topic. 

Writing does not start from a blank page. The best ideas come from connecting ideas across disciplines that you come across in different contexts. This book teaches you a different way to collect notes as the basis of coming up with ideas. Read this book if you consume a lot of interesting content and you’re looking for a way to get more from what you read or watch.

“Anatomy of a swipe” by Ahmed Siddiqui

Ever wondered how payments systems work together? What does PayPal do and how is it different from Stripe or Apple Pay? What happens when you swipe your card in store or online? This book runs through the complex payments system and the payers for each space.If you’re even marginally interested in payments, you should know everything in this book. That’s the only reason not to read it if you are curious about how payments work.

Honorable mention for other great books I read in 2020

  • Escaping the Build Trap by Melissa Perri: “The Build trap is when organizations become stuck measuring their success by outputs rather than outcomes. It’s when they focus more on shipping and developing features rather than on the value [it produces]”
  • The Book of Why by Judea Pearl: To really understand if / how A causes B, you need an accurate model of how the world works built on causal analysis. Data is not enough. Insight is model-driven.
  • No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings: Exceptional people deserve an exceptional workplace. To build this and attract exceptional people, you have a duty to push the boundaries to hire and retain only the best and diligently keep it that way. Whatever it takes. 
  • Shape Up by Ryan Singer: 2020 was the year I “discovered” Basecamp. I signed up for Hey and started using Basecamp for my personal projects. Basecamp is a company run differently. Shape Up outlines how they build products, prioritize features and think about backlogs. It’s different from most of the industry. And they’ve clearly had some success with their approach, growing Basecamp to 3m+ accounts. Read if you’re curious about a different approach to building products and managing teams.