50 Ideas That Changed My Life

By David Perell

Published on perell.com

Here are the 50 ideas that changed my life.

These are my guiding principles and the light of my intellectual life. All of them will help you think better, and I hope they inspire curiosity. 

1. Inversion: Avoiding stupidity is easier than trying to be brilliant. Instead of asking, “How can I help my company?” you should ask, “What’s hurting my company the most and how can I avoid it?” Identify obvious failure points, and steer clear of them.

2. Doublespeak: People often say the opposite of what they mean, especially in political language. It allows people to lie while looking like they’re telling the truth. As George Orwell famously wrote in 1984, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” 

3. Theory of Constraints: A system is only as strong as its weakest point. Focus on the bottleneck. Counterintuitively, if you break down the entire system and optimize each component individually, you’ll lower the effectiveness of the system. Optimize the entire system instead.

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The 6 Ds Of Tech Disruption: A Guide To The Digital Economy

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

Published on the Singularity Hub on November 22nd 2016

“The Six Ds are a chain reaction of technological progression, a road map of rapid development that always leads to enormous upheaval and opportunity.”

Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, BOLD

We live in incredible times. News travels the globe in an instant. Music, movies, games, communication, and knowledge are ever-available on always-connected devices. From biotechnology to artificial intelligence, powerful technologies that were once only available to huge organizations and governments are becoming more accessible and affordable thanks to digitization.

The potential for entrepreneurs to disrupt industries and corporate behemoths to unexpectedly go extinct has never been greater.

One hundred or fifty or even twenty years ago, disruption meant coming up with a product or service people needed but didn’t have yet, then finding a way to produce it with higher quality and lower costs than your competitors. This entailed hiring hundreds or thousands of employees, having a large physical space to put them in, and waiting years or even decades for hard work to pay off and products to come to fruition.

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Image: Singularity University

Requiem For A Tyrant

By Daniel Kalder

Originally published in The Spectator in February 2010

Tearing down the statue of a megalomaniac dictator is usually a joy reserved for the citizens of a newly-liberated country. But when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan ordered the removal of Ashgabat’s notorious Neutrality Arch last month, he was probably the only individual feeling liberated. For over ten years this monument to his
predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, AKA Turkmenbashi —a gold figure of the despot in a superman cape which rotates to face the sun- has stood atop a giant, futuristic tripod, casting a long shadow over Turkmenistan. Soon it will be gone, but that doesn’t mean the Turkmen are free.

Niyazov’s rule was legendarily eccentric and mind-bendingly narcissistic. He disliked gold teeth, the circus and the opera so he banned them; then he renamed January after himself and April after his mummy, Gurbansoltan eje. He forced his subjects to read The Ruhnama, a self-
penned ‘holy book’ consisting of myth, autobiography, bad history, moral platitudes and exceptionally rancid poetry.

His beginnings however were more humble. He was born in the Turkmen village of Gypjak in 1940; his father disappeared during World War II; his mother and two elder brothers died in an earthquake in 1948. Niyazov grew up in an orphanage, studied engineering in Leningrad and married a Russian Jew by whom he had a son and daughter. Returning to Turkmenistan he worked as an engineer at a hydroelectric plant. He rose through the party ranks, becoming prime minister of Turkmenistan and then, thanks to Gorbachev’s patronage, First Secretary. He acquired a reputation as an efficient manager of the Central Asian republic, which had been invented by soviet technocrats with some help from the regional elite in 1924. Nobody could have predicted that come independence this servile apparatchik would go berserk, forcing his
people to worship him as a god, while throwing his opponents into grim desert prisons. Indeed, for a brief period Niyazov seemed poised to challenge Kim Jong Il for the title of supreme loon of global politics. Then he died.

Since then, Berdymukhamedov has been steadily dismantling a personality cult that exceeded Stalin’s. Soon Niyazov will be a footnote of history, a joke to all except the unfortunate five million who had to endure his rule. Yet while monsters like Niyazov are rare, they are not as rare as we’d like to think — the 20th century was littered with lunatic dictators, and the 21st century will surely bring more.

Interested in the gap between the man and the living god, I visited Turkmenistan in early 2006. Almost everybody I met had a tale of a face to face encounter with the dictator. Sitting in a nomad’s yurt, deep in the Kara Kum desert, I learned that Niyazov had rested his humongous rear on the very same rug as me a few years earlier. On the border with Uzbekistan, I had the same experience in a mountain hut. It was as if Niyazov’s need to be loved had compelled him to force himself physically on every person in country. But fear ensured nobody said what he really thought of the ‘Father of All Turkmen’- although the silence itself spoke volumes. A year later I visited Moscow to meet with exiles, who I hoped would be willing to speak more freely. Many of them had also encountered the tyrannical tub of lard in person. And yet even though
Niyazov was now dead and we were outside Turkmenistan, his ghost hovered over these meetings, and most declined to divulge their surnames.

Lidya had been Niyazov’s neighbour in Buzmejin, the town outside Ashgabat where he had worked as an electrical engineer after his return from Leningrad:

“He was very shy. He never associated with his neighbours. He’d just get in his car and go to the office. He always came home for lunch; he never ate with his colleagues. His wife forced him to smoke outside, on the steps; that’s when I’d see him…. He was also obsessively clean. After he shook your hand, he had to wash his own hands. This was strange, first because shaking hands is a Russian not a Turkmen custom. And secondly, in the east water is so scarce, it’s sacred. Normal people don’t care if they have dirty hands.’

Niyazov never received visitors, not even relatives:

“In fifteen years that happened only once. An uncle from the village came to see him. He was an old man, with a white beard. But Niyazov did not receive him. The old man sat outside the building all day, until night came. Then he left.’

In a highly traditional culture which esteems elders, Niyazov’s rejection of his relative was scandalous. It was a theme explored further by Batir Mukhamedov, an ex-member of the soviet Turkmen politburo:

‘I met Niyazov many times. I liked him. He was businesslike, energetic, competent in many areas. Better than most first secretaries. But something happened in the early 90s… of course he had suffered a trauma in childhood with the loss of his parents. But in Turkmen culture,
if a husband dies in war, well- the entire family cares for the widow and her children. It’s an iron rule. But Niyazov’s mother, who had three children, was rejected by her family. She had to raise Niyazov on her own, and after she died, he was raised in an orphanage. I have never
heard of a case like this. What could explain it? Well, you can guess what a young lady, with her husband away at war, might have done to stay alive, bringing shame on the family… And decades later, once he was in power, Niyazov kicked all of his relatives out of any positions they held-which is the reverse of the usual Turkmen custom, of course.”

Batir also remembered a bizarre encounter with Niyazov, late at night in the mid 90s.

‘I was walking round Ashgabat and I stopped at some traffic lights. There, sitting in the back of an old Lada was Niyazov. There was no security, just him and the driver. He often went out incognito among the people, like Harun al-Rashid. I think he liked fairytales….’

Niyazov’s penchant for undercover expeditions into Ashgabat was legendary. During the Soviet era he would regularly visit bazaars in disguise. If he caught shopkeepers cheating their customers he would fire them. This made him popular, and his honest, ‘man of the people’
image persisted in the early years of independence. Most Turkmen were grateful that under Niyazov the country had not slid into Russia- style anarchy. Indeed, Niyazov had summarily executed the leading Turkmen gangsters, and displayed their corpses on TV. He also promoted inter-ethnic tolerance- initially, at least. However he already felt liberated from the standards of normal behaviour. Avdy Kuliev, an ex-foreign minister claimed that while on the Hajj to Mecca, Niyazov had drunk alcohol, as a result of which the Saudi King refused to grant him an audience.

Soley was a celebrated artist in Turkmenistan. To make money, he had touched up official portraits of Niyazov. He airbrushed out pockmarks, scabs, burst capillaries, changed his hair colour and freshened up crumpled suits; in one instance he was even instructed to remove
Niyazov’s shadow from a group photograph. The president’s apparatchiks might cast a shadow, but not the Father of All Turkmen. Soley was the most psychologically liberated of the exiles I spoke to:

‘In Turkmenistan, heroin is cheaper than marijuana. There are junkies everywhere. And Niyazov, he also loved drugs. A friend of mine worked in the presidential bodyguard at Firyuza, Niyazov’s estate. He wore a helmet and a suit of body armour- not for protection from assassins, but for protection from Niyazov because the president liked to get high and
then run around the estate shooting pistols. He shot at my friend. But ultimately Niyazov had to stop taking drugs. His heart couldn’t take it.’

Bizarre as it seems, Niyazov’s drug use was a recurring theme in my conversations, which included two meetings with a man who had served in the president’s personal guard. Rustem Safronov, a historian, political analyst and confidante of Boris Shykhmuradov, the ex-foreign minister who led a failed coup against Niyazov explained:

‘It was paranoia. Niyazov thought his enemies were waiting in the darkness and so he’d run out and shoot at them. Possibly yes, it was drug-fuelled. And there were also rumours about his relationships with very young girls. But even if he was degenerate, well- so what? It’s what
he did to the country that counts; these scandals distract us from his political crimes.’

There were other stories: I was told Niyazov’s war hero father was actually a deserter, a former secret policeman related accounts of consignments of drugs seized at the border with Afghanistan and then spirited away by the president’s office, and I heard tales of chilling
campaigns of persecution against anybody who had known him before he became dictator for life. I was even told that Niyazov had banned Pepsi, which he disliked, in favour of Coke. Much of the material was outlandish and impossible to prove. But considering that the reality Niyazov created in Turkmenistan was utterly fantastical, it was not that difficult to believe that the megalomaniac Turkmen leader might also have been a lecherous paranoiac drug-addicted Caligula.

Except – unlike Caligula, Niyazov was not mad. Otherwise he would not have succeeded at creating a system so perfectly suited to his pathologies. Indeed, he was so good at building a mechanism for total power that his successor Berdymukhamedov now enjoys a thriving
personality cult of his own. The eccentric ‘Golden Age’ of the damaged narcissist has given way to the drab ‘Renaissance’ of the ex-dentist while the people of Turkmenistan remain absolutely unfree. For regardless of the fate of Turkmenbashi’s revolving gold statue the strange prison-world he built for his people in the desert will persist for a long time to come. And that’s his true legacy.

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Why T.S. Elliot Still Matters

By Douglas Murray

Published in Standpoint on 22nd May 2020

His contemporaries’ reputations have diminished. But Eliot’s has grown: he is the poet who shows us what can be saved from the ruins.

I remember the exact words with which I was first introduced to “The Waste Land” while still at school. “This isn’t a poem you read. It is a poem you will live with.” Everything in the years since has proved those words true. And not just with that work, but with all of T.S. Eliot—the Four Quartets above all. It seems to be the same for many people. He is the modern poet whose lines come to mind most often. The one we reach for when we wish to find sense in things. And certainly the first non-scriptural place we call when we consider the purpose or end of life.

His contemporaries, by contrast, all seem to have grown smaller. W.H. Auden has perhaps three-quarters of his reputation still. But most of the other figures who dominated English poetry in the last century look diminished in the rear-view mirror. Which makes it even more striking that Eliot seems to grow. To consider why that should be is to consider something not just about our time, or his, but something about the nature of time, and the purpose of culture.

It is often thought that great artists in some way reflect or sum-up their age. And it is true that from “Prufrock” (1915) onwards Eliot seemed to speak to the particular, fractured nature of modern life. But many of Eliot’s contemporaries, including Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, managed that too. There must be reasons why Eliot continues to be read and they are not. One is that through the course of his poetic career Eliot did not merely reflect his times, but showed a way out of them. Indeed a way out of all time.

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Modern Monetary Theory Is An Old Marxist Idea

By Claudio Grass

Published on claudiograss.ch on February 26th 2020

There is nothing new under the sun.

Modern Monetary Theory, or “MMT”, has been getting a lot of attention lately, often celebrated as a revolutionary breakthrough. However, there is absolutely nothing new about it. The very basis of the theory, the idea that governments can finance their expenditures themselves and therefore deficits don’t matter, actually goes back to the Polish Marxist economist, Michael Kalecki (1899 – 1970). 

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The Long Tail

By Chris Anderson

Published in Wired on 10th January 2004

Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.

In 1988, a British mountain climber named Joe Simpson wrote a book called Touching the Void, a harrowing account of near death in the Peruvian Andes. It got good reviews but, only a modest success, it was soon forgotten. Then, a decade later, a strange thing happened. Jon Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air, another book about a mountain-climbing tragedy, which became a publishing sensation. Suddenly Touching the Void started to sell again.

Random House rushed out a new edition to keep up with demand. Booksellers began to promote it next to their Into Thin Air displays, and sales rose further. A revised paperback edition, which came out in January, spent 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. That same month, IFC Films released a docudrama of the story to critical acclaim. Now Touching the Void outsells Into Thin Air more than two to one.

What happened? In short, Amazon.com recommendations. The online bookseller’s software noted patterns in buying behavior and suggested that readers who liked Into Thin Air would also like Touching the Void. People took the suggestion, agreed wholeheartedly, wrote rhapsodic reviews. More sales, more algorithm-fueled recommendations, and the positive feedback loop kicked in.

Particularly notable is that when Krakauer’s book hit shelves, Simpson’s was nearly out of print. A few years ago, readers of Krakauer would never even have learned about Simpson’s book—and if they had, they wouldn’t have been able to find it. Amazon changed that. It created the Touching the Void phenomenon by combining infinite shelf space with real-time information about buying trends and public opinion. The result: rising demand for an obscure book.

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Image: Kenneth Hung

Courtney Love In Liverpool: The Scousers Who Taught The Grunge Icon How To Rock

By Dave Haslam

Published in the Guardian on 25th May 2020

In 1982, a tearaway called Courtney Love blazed into the city, intoxicated by its exploding post-punk scene. We reveal the feuds, filched raincoats and grotty flats that set her on the path to stardom.

If you were in Liverpool in 1982 and had a habit of wandering down Mathew Street, perhaps on your way to Probe record store, you are likely to have seen Courtney Love. She was 17 and living in the city, having been invited there by Teardrop Explodes frontman Julian Cope. Probe was one of her favourite places to go – if not to buy records, then to sit outside on the steps, drinking cider with her friend from back home in America, Robin Barbur.

A hundred yards from Probe was the site of Eric’s. From 1976 to 1980, Eric’s had hosted everyone from the Ramones to Joy Division. One band formed by the venue’s regulars was Big in Japan with lineups including Jayne Casey (later of Pink Military), Bill Drummond (later of the KLF), Holly Johnson (later of Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and Ian Broudie (later of the Lightning Seeds). “We were the most damaged children society turned out that year!” recalls Casey. “And we just happened to be on stage together.”

Love wanted to get close to them, particularly the Teardrop Explodes and Echo & the Bunnymen. She later recalled seeing Ian McCulloch of the Bunnymen “swanning around” the city: “He used to wear a big thick coat and glasses and hang out with Pete Wylie and mumble.” Wylie, of the band Wah! Heat, also had a big coat. Liverpool winters are cold – but the coats stayed on at parties and gigs. Love claims she once stole McCulloch’s, but he isn’t so sure: “I think she might have stolen a look rather than actual clothes. But if she did, good luck to her.”

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Image: Robin D Bradbury

Defying The Cosa Nostra: The Man Who Accidentally Bought A Mafia Stronghold

By Lorenzo Tondo

Published in the Guardian on 26th October 2019

Gianluca Calì was threatened by the mob for years, but now he’s turning an old mafia villa into a holiday house

The view from the terrace is breathtaking. On the left, the ancient Greek ruins of Solunto; on the right, the splendid Arab-Norman city of Cefalù. In the centre, a crystalline sea as blue as the sky.

For twenty years, Sicily’s most powerful mafia bosses plotted the murders of countless policemen and politicians from this spot, part of a 400 sq metre villa in the coastal resort town of Casteldaccia, known as the Miami of Sicilian mobsters, a few kilometres from Palermo.

But the godfathers are now gone and in their place is Gianluca Calì, an anti-mafia businessman who is about to turn their former stronghold into a holiday house.

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Image: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Five Ways To Rate

By Robin Hanson

Published in Overcoming Bias on May 19th 2020

When we have people and orgs do things for us, we need ways to rate them. So we can pick who to have do what, and how much to have them do. And how we evaluate suppliers matters a lot, as they put great effort into looking good according to the metrics we use.

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How John Maynard Keynes Learned The Folly Of Market Timing

By John Stepek

Extract from Stepek’s book The Sceptical Investor. Published in Money Week on May 25th 2020

Keynes was smarter than most people – but not the market.

John Maynard Keynes is of course, best known for being one of the most important thinkers in economics. But he was also a prolific, and eventually, very successful investor.

When Keynes (allegedly – there is no primary source that I’m aware of for this quote) warned that “the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent”, he was speaking from experience.

Keynes was perhaps the last human being on earth that you would describe as possessing intellectual humility. Both his education and his temperament led him to feel that he was a man apart from the norm – a cut above, both intellectually and morally.

The son of a pair of upper-middle-class academics, he won a scholarship to Eton and excelled. As Robert L. Heilbroner observes in a review of Robert Skidelsky’s biography of Keynes in the New York Times, “Keynes won nearly every competition he ever entered, a performance not likely to encourage humility in a developing personality.”

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