Annotate the Web: March 2016

I use Genius to add comments and context to the articles I read. This is a monthly round-up of articles I did the most Genius-ing on. To see all my annotations, follow me on Genius!

If you like to think while you read, you should get an account and add the Chrome extension. The Internet needs thoughtful people like you!

(Also, without the extension, you may not see the annotations on these articles.)


Articles of Note

80 years ago, Harvard had a “Jewish quota”. They used rhetoric about “character” to limit the number of Jews they admitted, in favor of students who weren’t as book-smart but fit the Harvard ideal. Today, the same thing is happening to Asians, for the same reasons.

Controlling for other variables […] Asians need SAT scores 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and an incredible 450 points higher than blacks (out of 1,600 points) to get into these schools. 

If you want to see some ridiculously offensive statements from MIT’s Dean of Admissions, this is the article for you!

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Annotate the Web: Phil Libin and Ezra Klein on Artificial Intelligence

I think that the year’s most amazing invention is

Right now — right this moment — you can turn any web page into a cross between a Kindle book and a page of lyrics on Rap Genius. Other people can read your annotations alongside the article, and add their own comments.

I plan to use this invention a lot. It’s the best way to deal with the fact that someone is always wrong on the internet.

Below is the first article I’ve “annotated” in this way. Read, upvote, and comment!

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Ezra Klein and Phil Libin are both remarkably smart people. But I think that they make some mistakes in their depiction of how experts on artificial intelligence think about the risk posed by this powerful technology.

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Seventeen Years of Amazon Shareholder Letters

On the advice of Bing Gordon, I recently spent an afternoon reading through the last 17 years’ worth of Amazon shareholder letters, written by the somewhat strange and mostly wonderful Jeff Bezos. This was an interesting experience; if you like entrepreneurship, or business in general, I highly recommend it!

Here are some of my favorite excerpts.


Humble beginnings:

“We brought [customers] much more selection than was possible in a physical store (our store would now occupy 6 football fields).”


“I constantly remind our employees to be afraid, to wake up every morning terrified. Not of our competition, but of our customers.”

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Backing Up Happiness

I just found another essay that echoes An Ode to Phones. The author, Glenn Gillen, owned many possessions (CDs, DVDs, etc.), but moved his life to the cloud as the necessary tools became available.

The most accessible section of the essay:

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, while talking to a friend about the risk of crime and property theft in San Francisco, that I appreciated the magnitude of what had happened.

10 years ago, someone breaking into my house didn’t just carry a huge emotional impact, but significant upfront and ongoing financial ones too. TVs, home theatre systems, computers. Thousands of dollars of equipment and potentially months of effort to acquire replacements and set everything up again. Not to mention the sentimental things like photos that could never be replaced. But today the financial impact is $999 to replace a Macbook Air and 30mins-60mins to set it up. All the “irreplaceable” music, photos, and software is back exactly as it was in the time it takes to eat lunch.

Taking something that seemed to have a high negative impact, and making it near negligible, has been liberating. And so I’m constantly looking at how to take it further.

Gillen’s article made me think about things that are harder to back up than data. Especially emotional states. Continue reading

Startup Brainstorming Power Hour

Something I’m glad I did: Sitting down with a large pad of paper, thinking about all the things that ought to exist, and writing them out as ideas for startups.

Time: 26 minutes for brainstorming (an hour is a long time) plus 90 minutes of research and blog-writing.

At the end of this, I had something like two dozen ideas, most of which were terrible. But a few were promising, and overall, it was a pretty good use of time. If there are things about the world you wish were different, you might enjoy doing the same.

The biggest takeaways from the experiment:

  1. Almost everything that you can imagine existing with current technology already exists, though it may not have been implemented very well.
  2. Following from (1): If you wish something existed, Google it. It probably does. (Example: Free wake-up calls from Wakerupper, which may replace my alarm clock.)

Something else that occurred to me:

Many problems in life can be solved if one tries enough new things. The greater challenge seems to be that many people don’t like trying new things. A great meta-invention would be an addictive app that rewards people for trying new things—but how would you convince people who don’t try new things to try it in the first place?


Most of the ideas are listed below. Steal them if you want to.

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An Ode to Phones

After my old phone failed for no apparent reason, I feared that I’d lost quite a lot of data, and that it would take weeks to get my life back in working order.

Half an hour after I entered the store where I buy phones, I walked out with a new device containing all the same data as my old device.

It hit me then that, since the advent of the Internet, and later cloud computing, the miracle of distributed data has saved humans tens of billions of hours in time that otherwise would have been spent recreating data or otherwise making up for its disappearance.

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Solving Problems Without Markets

David Hansson, on protecting the improbable social structure of open source:

Take Ruby on Rails. More than 3,000 people have committed man-decades, maybe even man-centuries, of work for free. Buying all that effort at market rates would have been hundreds of millions of dollars. Who would have been able to afford funding that?

That’s a monumental achievement of humanity! Thousands, collaborating for a decade, to produce an astoundingly accomplished framework and ecosystem available to anyone at the cost of zero. Take a second to ponder the magnitude of that success. Not just for Rails, of course, but for many other, and larger, open source projects out there with an even longer lineage and success.

Some problems are tough to solve with market values, especially when they offer no immediate returns.

MIRI is one example of this. They survive by donations, because “defense against intelligent supercomputers” is not a short-term investment. Google Calico is another example. That project exists because Google can afford to invest in things (like radical life extension) that won’t make money for the next 10 years.

Many wonderful things are built because of the market. The chair I’m sitting in is one of them. So is the phone on my desk, and the equipment in the hospital six blocks from my house. Markets help solve a lot of problems.

But they are not always good at solving certain “invisible” problems.

Some are invisible because most people don’t care about them—like one of the problems Rails tried to solve, “programming is hard to understand”. (This was before most people saw building apps as a thing they could do themselves.)

Others are invisible because most people don’t think they can be solved—like the problem Calico aims to solve in the long term, “humans are mortal”.

It may not be obvious that these things occupy the set of real, solvable problems alongside hunger and disease. But they do. And whether it’s philanthropy or open source (they share many qualities), it’s worth preserving social values that lead us to solve problems in non-market ways—not because the work isn’t valuable, but because it’s hard for a single person or company to capture that value.