Wednesday 25 October, 2023

You don’t say!

A serious conversation in a London cafe.

Quote of the Day

“He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”

  • Divorce complaint of Richard Feynman’s second wife

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622 | II. Adagio


I think this was the first LP I ever owned — before I even had a turntable, so I had to play it on a friend’s system!

Long Read of the Day

Absolute Powerpoint: Can a software package edit our thoughts?

And yeah I know Monday’s Long Read was about Powerpoint, but Tim Harford had mentioned this New Yorker essay by Ian Parker, and of course I followed the link and was entranced by it. As I hope you will be too.

It’s beautifully written and full of witty and insightful observations. For example, he discovered that Whitfield Diffie, the legendary cryptographer who with Martin Hellman invented public-key cryptography, played a small role in the genesis of Powerpoint. “I recently had lunch with him in Palo Alto”, Parker writes, “and for the first time he publicly acknowledged his presence at the birth of PowerPoint. It was an odd piece of news: as if Lenin had invented the stapler.”

Do read it.

Books, etc.

I’m working my way through Mike Lewis’s book on Sam Bankman-Fried, the alleged wunderkind who was responsible for the FTX implosion and who is now on trial in New York. I’m only part-way through, but as a portrait of an exceedingly complicated, clever and weirdly-detached human being it’s interesting and well done.

However, the book has attracted a lot of fierce criticism from people who are (rightly) angry about the FTX fiasco, and cross with Lewis because they think he’s been suckered by his subject. So it was interesting to stumble across a long (too long, IMHO) review essay by Cody Kommers who argues that Lewis got the balance just right. In effect, Kommers is spitting into a critical hurricane, summarised thus:

Pretty much everyone who reviewed this book agreed on two things: (a) Lewis is generationally great at narrative journalism, but (b) this time he got it wrong. Jennifer Szalai, of the New York Times, called Lewis’s book “strange”—in her opening sentence. A number of reviews said that the book on crypto you really want to read is Zeke Faux’s Number Go Up, including a compare-and-contrast in a very helpful Economist article, which notes that Lewis’s book “reveals little about the inner workings of crypto.” Even money people (as opposed to, like, literary people) really didn’t like it: Fortune declared that Lewis had unprecedented access to SBF but failed to reveal any new information. The original title of Helen Lewis’s piece for The Atlantic was “Michael Lewis is Buying What Sam Bankman-Fried is Selling.” Ouch.

All that is bad. But you know it’s really bad when Noah Smith weighs in without having even read the book…

I can’t help thinking that there’s such a moralistic force-field surrounding SBF (as the lad seems to be universally known) that people have difficulty being objective about the book. But sometimes, when you find a noisy consensus, it’s worth being sceptical.

I’ll read on to see what I think.

My commonplace booklet

Responses to Tim Hartford’s essay on PowerPoint (Monday’s Long Read) included this interesting reflection:

I’m a civil servant and unsurprisingly we use PowerPoint a lot, most often when we really shouldn’t. Tim Harford’s argument is that we use it because it’s easy and within reach.

That may be a part of the explanation. But another part of the explanation for PowerPoint’s ubiquity has to include expectations. When a senior leader asks for something, they often ask for a slide or two, regardless of whether it’s appropriate or not.

Another part of the explanation has to include the now default meeting mode – video calls. It’s even harder to sit in meetings with cameras off if there’s no slide deck to look at, just our colleagues’ bizarre choices of profile picture.

And then finally, what else can we use to cover up the void where charisma should be. Not everyone that presents has the charisma necessary to present without something to lean on. Similarly, not everyone writes well enough to put a plain document together. Not everyone can build an infographic that captures the imagination. PowerPoint slide decks are the lowest common denominator.

And the payoff: “Poorly made slide decks put audiences at ease.”

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