The Book of Why (Book Review)

The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie argues that correlation is not causation.

Three levels of intelligence:

  1. Seeing – regularities (animals, evolution?)
  2. Doing – predict (e.g. hawk and prey)
  3. Imagining – theory, why! (humans, sometimes)

Current day AI is at level 1 (not even 2). It can’t posit a counter-factual. And it shows that level 1 is already very strong.

Limited Turing test is the goal of Pearl. E.g. have a story and AI to make inferences from parts of it.

Bayesian, priors, causality, billjard balls

http://ftp.cs.ucla.edu/pub/stat_ser/r481.pdf

The Longevity Diet (Book Review)

Dr Valter Longo summarises his life long journey of researching longevity through diet. In The Longevity Diet, he argues for a nutritious diet in combination with regular fasting mimicking diets (FMD). The diet is plant-based (with some fish sprinkled in). The FMD should activate innate programs your body has for restoring youth (juvenescence).

The book offers a compelling argument for the influence of diet on our health. It also makes common sense (which from The AI Delusion I gather we need some more of). Yet it also relies heavily on epidemiological data and studies of centenarians. What I find most compelling is the clinical studies, for which the other two can be a basis/hypothesis.

Two questions remain after reading the book. The first concerns longevity and fitness. In bodybuilding/weightlifting/etc world IGF-1 is touted as a great way to build muscle. Yet it’s also one of the things mentioned in the longevity diet as something to avoid (e.g. red meat) and lower (e.g. FMD). I want to put on some pounds (of muscle) in the coming years, yet also want to live long. So there is a bit of a dilemma.

The second is about the expected effect size of the longevity diet (+FMD). Will it add 5 years? 10 years? And/or how many healthy years (healthspan) will it add? This is something that is quite difficult to study (us being humans and all), and I hope we will be able to make progress in this area in the coming years. At the same time I also think that fixing things at a molecular level (see Ending Aging) should be pursued.

The best thing could be to eat healthy, with some FMD/fasts sprinkled throughout the year, and then also start fixing some things which we can’t keep intact with a good diet, or that need to be partly supplemented with other interventions.

One thing to never lose sight of is the enjoyment of life. Some of the mice in the calorie restriction programs were depressed, for twice the lifetime. I really like the idea of having short (5 days) fasts/FMD 4 times per year. And although I already follow most of the guidelines of the longevity diet (and I want to do that even better), I still love to have a beer or two (or 8) every now and then. So if you want to have a long and healthy life, read on for the rest of my notes on The Longevity Diet.

In the introduction we are introduced to the goal of the book “Contrary to the notion that if we live longer we will extend the ‘sickness’ period, our data indicate that by understanding how the human body is maintained while young, we can stay fully functional into our nineties, hundreds, and beyond. One of your primary ways to achieve this is to exploit our body’s innate ability to regenerate itself at the cellular and organ levels.”

The Five Pillars of Longevity is what Longo builds his research upon:

  1. Basic/juventology research
  2. Epidemiology
  3. Clinical studies
  4. Studies of centenarians
  5. The understanding of complex systems

A lot of the book is dedicated to describing the habits and diets of centenarians. One of the statements in this context is that supplementation doesn’t work (e.g. with antioxidants). The argument is that you can’t improve on an almost perfect system. I understand the concept in relation to what is being tried. Yet at the same time, our system is almost perfect to keep us alive some time after childbirth. In time I do believe we will be able to copy/supplement this system to live even longer.

Another thing he argues for is that we should do things in tune with evolution. Although that phrase itself is quite pointless, the example of fasting is illustrating. Longo argues that in times of low food a species (humans, but also earlier on the evolutionary tree) were right in saving themselves over reproducing (otherwise they wouldn’t be here anymore). So if we trick our body into giving that response, maybe we can set off the same protection and damage repair (on a protein level) process.

What Longo tries to do is to keep a human young, not treating individual diseases or conditions. The process of repair that he argues for, he calls programmed longevity: “a biological strategy to influence longevity and health through cellular protection and regeneration to stay younger longer.”

You are what you eat and food can have a large impact on your health. Yet at the same time Longo argues that your happiness is not determined by the food you eat. Yes a cake (read: sugars) bring you immediate joy, but eating healthy is not something that will make you unhappy. He even argues that it will make you happier, although indirectly, because of better health.

Constant caloric deprivation/deficit is not what you would want. It can expand the life of a mouse, and possibly humans too. But experiments in both show that it’s the opposite of a mood booster. This is one of the main reasons for doing a FMD/fast only at certain intervals.

The Longevity Diet is what you want to be doing for most of the time, it consists of the following parts:

  • Pescetarian diet: Almost 100% plant-based and fish 2 or 3 times a week (for the omega’s – this could be vital, but I wonder how critical/necessary it is)
    • One note is that in old age, Longo argues for more protein in the diet (but it’s based on studies of centenarians and one fallacy of this could be that they didn’t have much protein back in the day and now just have it available (thus eating it more))
  • Consume low but sufficient proteins
    • From plants and nuts
  • Minimize bad (trans) fats and sugars, and maximize good fats and complex carbs
  • Be nourished (Longo argues for taking a vitamin and mineral supplement, I can’t find good evidence that backs it up, and I wonder if it really is beneficial)
  • Eat a variety of foods from your ancestry (again, not 100% convinced, I do get it from a ‘processed’ vs more whole-food approach)
  • Eat twice a day plus a snack (now doing this, and the main benefit is more control/easier measuring of meals)
  • Observe time-restricted eating (eat within 11-12 hours per day or less)
    • The source linked for this is quite a good one, with an intervention (only to eat within the time frame) that lead to weight loss.
  • Practice period prolonged fasting (fasting/FMD for 2 periods of 5 days or more)
  • Follow the above points to reach/maintain a healthy weight and abdominal circumference

I really like the last part, it’s about finding a new diet, not ‘dieting’.

It also triggered me to make some measurements to better assess my progress in body composition (the two scales I have at home are very erratic and give different measures).

Here are some more notes:

  • The age differences between the best and the worst groups are quite small: Okinawa 81,2 vs USA 76,8 (5%)
  • And although some cancer levels are much higher in percentages, up to 8 times as many, the number of prostate cancers in the US is still only 28 per 100.000
  • “If you take 100 centenarians, you get 100 different elixirs of longevity”
  • Longo argues that the drugs we’re developing are still far away and that diet is, now, the best thing you can do yourself (I can concur)
  • Stay active, this is the second factor after diet that has a huge influence on longevity
    • Walk fast for an hour every day
    • Ride, run, swim 30-40 minutes every other day plus two hours on the weekend
    • Use your muscles
  • The FMD could also have positive effects on many diseases. Although things become a bit more speculative here, there is still quite promising evidence and if you (again) compare it to the average diet, I can very much understand how it could help
  • Chapters that follow deal with cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease (the biggest killer that gets the least attention), Alzheimer’s, and autoimmune diseases

The book ends with an observation about our minds. A positive mindset, a will to live, and more could be very significant factors in longevity. The trouble is that it’s not very well studied and the implementation of results can be quite hard. But keeping close friends and enjoying life should not be underestimated.

As a final note, I wholeheartedly believe in what Longo says and I am confident that more research will confirm many of the things not yet proven. Yet I also think we should pursue medical/drug interventions with all the haste we can. Eventually things will break down, our genes weren’t ‘made’ to have us live forever. So we will have to come up with ways to do this ourselves. The Longevity Diet is a great basis, a well-oiled car, now we need some mechanics to do some repairs (and upgrades) every now and then.

The AI Delusion (Book Review)

In The AI Delusion, Gary Smith very successfully argues against the intelligence part of artificial intelligence (AI). With numerous examples, and sometimes a rather deep dive into statistics, he shows that current day AI is nothing more than some competence without any comprehension.

An AI system might be very good at reading stop signs, but put a sticker on the sign and you’ve lost it. Robustness and common sense are missing from AI systems. The book gave me a new insight into how ‘thinking’ machines are still a long way off. At the same time, I’m looking forward to exploring The Book of Why, one that argues that we can express causality (where now we only have correlation in AI systems) in math.

In some ways I was already on board of the AI is awesome bandwagon. I heard about Google Flu, about AI systems to give loans to people (and not being biased), and about algorithms to prevent crime. All these examples pass in the final chapter and are all shot down ruthlessly.

The main argument of Smith is that when you put together a lot of data and then let a system find correlations, it will find them. If we then don’t take a look at the black box (which correlations it used), things can get pretty weird.

Examples in the book include weather in a city in Australia, prediction (in a given year) the temperature in a city in America the next day (inversely correlated). And at many times he uses a random number generator to show that when you gather enough data/correlations you will get results.

Smith tackles industries like technical analysis (looking at stock charts and finding correlations/patterns), drug discovery, and more. With regards to stocks he mentions numerous ‘systems’ and shows that these don’t work outside of the training data and that many ‘gurus’ change their system over time (which of course is touted as evolution, but of course is just refitting the model with the new training data).

The trouble is that in many cases the results don’t translate outside the training data (where you let the AI find the correlations). This was, for instance, the case with the Google Flu system. And when you do find out what it uses, it can also be gamed (just like people do with SAT tests). One example of this is that people with Android (vs Apple) phones were worse creditors. If you (the person wanting a loan) know this, just change phones.

Yet even when you look outside the training data, you can still be lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view). When Smith used his random numbers and looked at the ones that predicted stock prices in one year, and then looked at all the ones that also worked the next year, some did very well. Yet that doesn’t mean it will do well again the next year (remember, random numbers).

One point he drives home is that we shouldn’t trust computers blindly. When they show competence without comprehension, you need to be the one who instils the common sense. Computers are way better (read: perfect) at remembering numbers, but they have no clue why.

The book is a bit long on the middle (Smiths background is in statistics and it shows), but also is a good wake-up that we’re not there yet. I think that with our narrow, stupid, but still very competent AI we can still do many great things. But for now, we should leave the comprehension and critical thinking to us humans.

Machines Like Me (Book Review)

Machines Like Me is the latest novel by Ian McEwan. Although I wasn’t really a fan of Solar I really got carried away with this book. The world is somewhat different from ours and if I remember it correctly it takes place in 1984. Some technology is more advanced than ours and McEwan ponders quite some interesting questions.

Can a machine think? Can it love? The laws of nature don’t forbid it, yet at the same time we don’t know what makes us tick / conscious. The final chapter also ponders what the rights of (humanoid) robots are, could we just kill them?

The writing of McEwan is great, and quite funny in a somewhat dark way. I got a lot of references to machine intelligence, p vs np-problem, Alan Turing, etc. The politics I was only partially aware of, but that didn’t take center stage.

The Rational Optimist (Book Review)

The Rational Optimists takes a look back at our history (in a similar way Steven Pinker does in The Better Angels of Our Nature/Enlightenment Now). And it looks forward at the progress we can be making. The main argument is that we are always progressing/changing/improving. The main cause is specialisation and exchange (that go hand in hand). What many pundits forget is that this process hasn’t stopped and by some accounts will only increase (exponentially, think Ray Kurzweil). Highly recommended book.

Progress – in the future

What I find most striking about the book is the (very obvious) observation that we’ve been making progress for thousands of years (which are explained in the book), and that we will continue to do so.

Yet most people in the news/world expect a static world, one where progress/innovation is not possible. On one hand I can imagine this, we don’t see progress on a day-to-day basis. But even looking back 10 or 20 years, we’ve made so many strides forwards.

Are we happier? We don’t think about it that much, but we are much happier. And even when happiness stalls (West-Europe, America), we have better and better living conditions and medical care than ever before.

A person in 1950 couldn’t imagine the world of 2019, in the same way we can’t imagine what we will be doing in 2100. All we can know is that through bottom-up innovation (through specialisation and exchange) we will do great new things. We might go to the moon and beyond, we might live forever, we might have abundant energy (e.g. through fission).

Yes, we do need to worry about the problems that we’re creating. But in the last chapter Ridley lays out how we’ve exaggerated many of those claims, and again forgot about the progress that we’re making.

Let us all be optimists, rational optimists!

The Art of Learning (Book Review)

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin is a great book on how to achieve peak performance. It mixes together his personal journey in chess and push hands with frameworks he discovered during his life. In my summary below, I will pick apart the principles and see how I can apply them in my own life. The main question I have is how to apply these things that are applied to the relative or very short timeframe, with learning and performing over longer periods of time without those competition moments.

Incremental Learning

Josh argues that there are two ways of learning. The first is the entity theorists (fixed mindset). The second is the incremental theorists (learning, hard work).

I think most people are aware that we can learn new things (just think back to when you were a baby). Yet that many also think that we can’t become better at many things we do (e.g. chess, tennis, baking).

He argues that the incremental learning approach (of course) is better. And that you can always learn more, especially with the techniques listed below.

Simplify

In chess, Josh applied the simplification by starting with the endgame. This meant he only had to deal with 2-3 pieces on the board. He then also practised with other pieces alone, to get a deep understanding of how they work. This in contrast to learning everything about chess with a full board.

Personally, I see the application of this in many things. One example is learning weightlifting. The Snatch, for instance, is quite the complex movement, but if you focus on one part each time or break it up during warm-up, you learn over time to do the whole movement better and better.

Layering

From this simplified version, can you add extra layers of complexity? Here Josh mentions how he builds up chess positions or tai chi movements again to their full form. Each time with a deep, intuitive, understanding of the layer(s) below.

I guess I already touched upon this a bit with the simplifying example. I can also see this work in business. With Queal we started with just one product, then added flavours, variations, other products, dashboard, etc. Each time building upon the foundations of the layer before.

Making Smaller Circles

A duality or mix of both simplification and layering is ‘making smaller circles’. Here Josh means that you can have an expert understanding of a move or position, but make it even smaller than before.

An example he uses is that of ‘controlling the centre’. Grandmasters in chess can apply this at other places on the board too. For push hands, it means making your moves smaller and smaller so that can outwith your opponent (imagine a boxer’s left hook versus a drunk swinging his arm around).

For myself, I can imagine this applying to the techniques in the Snatch. Or to better understand what entrepreneurial things to work on (versus not). But I don’t have the best example/understanding here yet.

Lose Yourself

Losing yourself touches upon that deep/intuitive understanding of a topic and executing at ‘superhuman’ speeds/levels. I understand it as being able to connect things without having to deliberate about it (using your prefrontal cortex, or ‘talking’ to yourself).

It reminds me of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

I’ve experienced flow (as described in the book) sometimes but not very often. I think you can apply it to entrepreneurship, but here you also need a lot of research, doing excel, and meetings. Not always the best for flow.

Examples/Coaching

You need a coach (see Triggers). A coach can help you see what is the right way to do something. And together with a coach you can improve faster than if you’re doing it on your own.

I’ve seen this both at Queal and with weightlifting. It’s hard work and sometimes not too much fun, but a coach does really help you learn quicker. Of course, do find someone who can match your learning style and knows how to get the most out of you.

Constraints

At our office we have a ‘game’ in which you are give certain constraints and then have to apply that to your idea. It can help idea new ways of solving the problem, find costs saving, find what the core of an idea is.

Josh mentions that he couldn’t use one of his hands in the lead-up to a tournament, so he had to learn how to defend his body (and attack the other) with just one hand. This led to many creative insights and a technique that was harder to combat by his opponents.

I also remember a story of Toyota (true or not), that they don’t allow debt within each division, which triggers each one of them to think of the best way to make what they need in the most efficient way possible (the company has enough money/ability to borrow, so it’s a voluntary constraint).

Opponents

Find the biggest guy in the room, pick a fight. Ok, that is not exactly how Josh described it, but having good opponents is key. It’s someone (or another company) from which you can learn, someone who has something to teach you.

At Queal, we learn from moves that other companies make. And that includes opponents, but also others outside our space (I don’t remember if he mentions this much, but I think you can learn a lot from other disciplines).

Losing to Win

When you’re facing a bigger/better/faster opponent, be prepared to lose. Here Josh argues that you should check your ego at the door. Don’t be disheartened by loss, but learn how to extract lessons from it.

In the world of business, I think a good example is sales people. Some go home and worry, others see what 1% did go well and try to make that 2%. The most difficult thing here (for me) is to know what is information/signal from all the noise. If our sales go down, can we learn what to do better, or was it just random fluctuations?

Losing to win is definitely something where a coach is very helpful.

Pause to Accelerate

If you keep throwing yourself at something, you may get a breakthrough. More likely you will burn out. So pause once every while and recover (even recover in between sets, or when working 8 hours). And on a large scale, take a summer break and come back with new ideas.

In this fast-paced world, I think this is a great principle to adhere to and something I hold dear. I can’t keep on working and working (maybe unless in the flow for a few hours) and taking a step back is, in many cases, the best thing to do.

Find the Zone

Many people can’t do good work at home. Too many distractions, too many patterns that you trigger that aren’t related to work (doing dishes, tv around, hi neighbour). Josh has found that you should always trigger yourself to find ‘the zone’.

The trigger could be a mediation, a jog outside, your favourite song (a combination of these and more). If you do this every time before you want to do your best work, then eventually this can become the thing that gets you to do your best work.

Josh also combines this with another one of the skills, making smaller circles. What if you don’t have time now for the 15-minute meditation? Try and (over multiple sessions) make the meditation shorter and shorter. So that when there is a situation when you can’t do the full ritual, you can still get in the zone.

His personal example of this smaller circle was a breath. Before he got on the mat to do push hands, just one breath could centre him.

Making Sandals

If you’re walking on glass, you can be angry and pained. Or you can make sandals. Here Josh argues that you can use your passion/anger as fuel to build something better. Is the other guy cheating, don’t break out in a fit, show the a-hole that you’re better than him.

Another way of looking at this is sandals vs not taking the path at all. In our world, we face many problems and we can’t solve everything, but that doesn’t mean we should close our eyes. I personally try and be very rational and see where we could have the biggest impact (e.g. malaria).

Be Unique

At the highest level, everyone is technically adept. Here you need to distinguish yourself by bringing everything you’ve learned, by being unique. That is the thing that others can’t replicate. And the way you might become push hands champion or a chess grandmaster.

Applying this to my own life

During this review I’ve tried to find some examples where I’m applying the techniques/lessons to my own life. I see several places where it could be useful and one thing that it reminds me of is another term: deliberate practice. Not just going through the motions, but being in the presence/zone and actively learning how to do something better.

Weightlifting is what comes to mind, but how to do my work at Queal, how to eat right, and how to do all other things in life, are all places where I can apply some of the lessons above. Again, a recommended book that teaches some great lessons.

Billion Dollar Whale (Book Review)

This is one very interesting story. Think Wolf of Wall Street, in the year 2010, with bigger parties, more money, and one of the companies financed by this Wolf/Whale, is the production company that made Wolf of Wall Street. It’s graft, corruption and the lack of a moral compass on the largest of scales. Well written and just crazy to contemplate.

It also showcases how many people are willing to look the other way. Is it trust (and I guess that we need that, trade is built on trust)? Or is it greed (which, in a way, also built trade)?

The book also makes me think of America at the moment, is it not also there that money and power from business (and not even good businesses in case of the president) buy you political power? How come that the system (checks and balances) is not working any more?

I have no direct answers at the moment, and who knows it’s also a glass half full thing (that it’s happening less and this is just an exception). I do recommend the book, if it’s just for how crazy it is.

“The dust had yet to settle on the global financial crisis in 2009 when an unlikely Wharton grad set in motion a fraud of unprecedented gall and magnitude–one that would come to symbolize the next great threat to the global financial system. The nuts and bolts of the scheme were shockingly simple: A young, big-talking, huckster persuaded the Prime Minister of Malaysia to create an investment fund that he would direct from the shadows, raised more than ten billion dollars from global investors with the aid of Goldman Sachs and others, and over the next half decade siphoned off no less than $5 billion: money used to finance elections; to purchase luxury real estate in London, New York, and Los Angeles; to produce Hollywood films, including The Wolf of Wall Street–and to throw champagne-drenched parties around the world. Low’s largesse also won him friendships with Hollywood actors, Victoria’s Secret models, and even with a member of President Obama’s inner circle. More staggering still, no one seemed to notice–not the global banks, such as Goldman and J.P. Morgan, who turned a blind eye to shady transfers of hundreds of millions of dollars; and not the international auditors, central bankers, and official financial-system watchdogs.At the center of this fraud was Jho Low–a character so preposterous he seems made up. Federal agents who helped unravel Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme say the Jho Low affair, when its full contours become known, will become a textbook case for tracking transnational fraud in the modern age.”