Campus billboards anyone?

From the twittersphere of Sam Harris, astute and visually pleasing.

The artwork was done by Paul Lachine, who did a fantastic job at Sam's TED Talk on AI. Combined with Sam's Waking Up Podcast on the topic, this deserves a post of its own, stay tuned.

An ode to the podcast

The main perk of having a fairly long daily bike commute - though true in The Netherlands, especially more so in the California sun - is the fact that I can spend around 100 minutes of each day listening to people who have something interesting to say. Whether it is hearing spectacular accounts of historical events (e.g. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History), versatile, insightful documentaries on people from all walks of life (e.g. This American Life), or in depth conversations with interesting people (e.g. the Tim Ferriss show): podcasts make it possible to do this all at times when you would otherwise be forced to stare into the distance.*

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Yes, maybe, no

So in Germany no actually means no? This leaves British politicians utterly confused. BBC Radio 4 reports.

Shark-infested waters

Upon finishing Tony Hseih’s book that had ‘feel good’ written all over it (perhaps even a bit too much sometimes), I started reading Luyendijk’s immersion into the world of London City bankers; ’Swimming with Sharks'. Boy, the contrast with Tony’s book could not have been starker. But like with Luyendijk's former books on journalism in the Middle East, this book was an absolute page turner. And like he did for the making of his former books, Luyendijk submerses himself into the world of his subjects and manages to paint a picture that is human, balanced, and - perhaps what gives the account a lasting impression - very non-judgemental. 

He describes his initial struggle to find bankers willing to share their version of City life, shows that ‘the banker’ does not exist and that - unsurprisingly - how the world of finance entails a vast collection and wide variety of jobs. The people occupying these professions come in as wide a variety of character traits as any other profession, and though the classic stereotype ‘Master of the Universe’ loudmouth alpha does indeed exist, Luyendijk also identifies ’teeth grinders’, ‘blinkers’, and a bunch of other types of character traits that constitute this world. In short, Luyendijk shows that the people in this profession are as human as any one of us.

This leads the reader to a conclusion that is much darker and more worrisome than the picture of ‘a handful of rotten apples that ruin it for all’ would have painted though. Luyendijk points out how the whole incentive structure in banking is set up to favour short-term gains over sustainable growth and prosperity, how incentives push one to ‘eat or be eaten’, and urge every entity - the banks, the employees, the politicians, etc. - to care for nothing else but the self. In many ways the world of (investment) banking is a world of 'grab all you can grab, because tomorrow the party might be over'.

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In pursuit of happiness

When recommended to me a couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of Tony Hseih. However, while I had hardly heard of Zappos, I had on many more accounts heard of and read about some company who offered new employees the choice to quit with a $2k bonus anytime during their 4 week introduction period. I had heard of some online retail store with an incredible customer service that did much more than was asked for. Tony turns out to be the man behind this all, and he tells his personal story in a real, open, down to earth and humorous way.

His story starts how he as a young boy wants to become rich by growing a worm farm, and takes you through his youth, college, founding LinkExchange and selling it off, and his almost religious experience at a rave. Eventually a turn of events leads him to take all of his experiences, acquired wealth, and efforts to bet it all on growing a small online shoe store in the way he thought it should be done. That is, growing it such that not only revenues or profitability would grow as fast as possible, but grow the shoe store such that everyone connected to the business in one way or another - employees, vendors, customers, investors, partners, local communities - could grow and prosper - prosper in the broadest sense of the word - with this company known as Zappos.

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As the sun sets over South Holland

A Great New Adventure Out West starts. More on that later, but for now a small visual tribute to two places very dear to me: a place that taught me how to be a scientist, and a place that stole my heart.

The view from a place I loved to watch the sun go down, perhaps a place known for its touch of champagne socialism, but boy what a fantastic spot. And what about this one, though perhaps not Oxford's 'Bridge of Sighs' this was taken from, the view is a more majestic one if you ask me:

There I so many things that I could, maybe should, or probably wish I had written about the city of Rotterdam, the city which I had come to call my home during the final stretch of my PhD (and, what turned out to be my final time in The Netherlands, that is). I wanted to have written how I truly love the fact that in many ways this place was the proud antipode to Amsterdam, an unpolished diamond, a harbor city and a place with rough edges, yet culturally rich and beautiful at its core not unlike the beloved city of my teenage years, Antwerp; how this place cuts strait through a lot of the BS so adorned in the capital, a place of doing instead of talking about doing; how it is the only city in the country that has a true metropolitan feel; how, unlike other Dutch cities, this place did not give me the sense of being a mere spectator in my own country, and so on and so forth. In short, how by a historic and gruesome twist of fate this city had become the non-conformist rebel of the Low Countries, and how this place finally made me feel truly at home in my country of birth for the first time in my life. But as with so many things floating around in one's head, only minute fractions end up in writing. Perhaps for the better, as I was probably too busy enjoying life. Anyway, enough rambling, let's let the pics do some of the talking:

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It's not education, stupid!

Ah, La perfide Albion, wanting to be left alone by that pesky old continent again, will it ever be any different? Not in a while, I suppose. Of the innumerable opinion articles that were written in the wake of the actual Brexit vote, some I found a very good read. A discussion on Zuckerberg’s medium prompted me to do some writing of my own, so below a slightly modified version.

An 1870 map depicting Brittain as an old woman, turning her back on 'the continent'. Via 1843magazine.

As most probably have witnessed over the past days, the quite strong correlation between average education level and Brexit leanings of a region was often condescendingly used as an ‘Eurosceptics are (racist) morons’ statement by Bremainers/pro-Europeans. In my view, nothing is more nonconstructive, dangerous, and - frankly - stupid than that. If anything, this referendum should be a wake up call to the higher educated, pro-EU slice of the population (I am implying yours truly as well).

Because whatever the reason for our pro-European stance, there is clearly a large fraction of the population that does not buy this story any longer. And yes, this fraction seems to include a large part of the low-educated, working class population. Many are angry, and from their point of view very rightly so. Sure, the UK leaving the EU might not necessarily be the most efficient option or bring more prosperity, but why should they care? For decades, we all have been convincing ourselves and others that European integration (or broader perhaps: globalization) would allow everyone to obtain a bigger piece of a(n ever increasing) pie. Yet the working class (to perhaps incorrectly generalize here) has not seen their piece increase: often even obtaining a piece has become more complicated.

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Thermal spiraling


Adolf on Vladimir

What would be the musings and thoughts of Adolf Hitler if he woke up in present day Berlin, thinking he had just awaken from another night in the furherbunker in 1945?

Timur Vermes gives this premise a shot in his novel "Look who's back", and a very intriguing one it is I must add. Though he still has his obviously ill and distorted world views, he also very astutely addresses the present day incompetencies, bureaucratic annoyances and inefficiencies that come with modern democratic politics in a way only an outsider with dictatorial urges can do. This leads to hilarious observations, such as this little gem here:

Him on a politician’s obligations to engage in sports of any kind:

“[…] And as for appearing in swimming trunks - well, that is the most preposterous thing imaginable. You couldn’t dissuade Mussolini from doing it. And more recently that suspect Russian leader has been doing it too. An interesting fellow, no question, but as far as I am concerned it is a foregone conclusion: the moment a politician removes his shirt, his policies are dead in the water. All he will say is, “Look, my dear fellow countrymen, I have made the most extraordinary discovery: my policies look better without a shirt on.” What sort of nonsensical proposition is that?”

and so he continues his musings:

“I have even read that a German war minister was lately photographed with a wench in a swimming pool. While his troops were in the field, or at least preparing for deployment. Had I been in charge, this would have been the gentleman’s last day in office. I wouldn’t have bothered with a letter of resignation - you lay a pistol on his desk, a bullet in the chamber, you leave the room, and if the blackguard has an ounce of decency he knows what he has to do. And if not, the following morning the bullet’s in his brain, and he’s face down in the pool. Then everyone else in the ministry knows what to expect if you stab your troops in the back while wearing swimming trunks. No, bathing larks were out of the question as far as I was concerned.”

All in all a witty and entertaining novel, I am not surprised the book made it onto the movie screens.

Death by fungus

Stumble upon Sunday. This reminded me of a fascinatingly morbid BBC (earth?) series. A fungus that takes over control of an insect brain, directs it towards an area optimally humid for fungal growth, lets the zombified critter bite down into a leaf to anchor it in place, then finally kills and devours it. How on earth does this work? How does something like this evolve? In any case: it makes for great pictures, as Alex Wild shows.