013: Hacking CPAP machines, parents are flat-earthers, and free learning projects


Are we losing control over software?

The early internet gave us more flexibility and control over customization from the end-user perspective, the most famous example being MySpace. It was probably single-handedly responsible for getting a lot of web developers today interested in programming/design when they were younger.

Today, we don’t have that same freedom. Twitter’s new website redesign killed off a color profile customization feature. Instagram and Snapchat never offered it, and perhaps the closest to that was Vine, which was tragically shut down years ago.

While social media can customized through post aesthetics, it seems that implicitly, there is no creative freedom and conformity is the default.

This edition is going to be short, as I’ve been packing for SF! I’ll be out here for at least the next few months, so if you’re in town, ping me :)


  • Much like the insulin pump hacker article I shared last time, there’s another interesting one on hacking CPAP machines for sleep apnea patients.

  • Ink & Switch consistently puts out great research. Their latest is on cloud apps and owning your own data.

  • "The vision was that the Semantic Web would become a playground for intelligent 'agents.' These agents would automate much of the work that the world had only just learned to do on the web…

    "The web we have today is slowly becoming a glorified app store, just the easiest way among many to download software that communicates with distant servers using closed protocols and schemas, making it functionally identical to the software ecosystem that existed before the web."



mehmetgeren has been one of my favorite finds lately. I love how he combines old art with modern symbols and text through graphic design.

Thanks for reading :)


012: Notes on lunch with Alan Kay, the bouba/kiki effect, and Weekly Brew with Ryan Delk


I recently ran a poll on Twitter asking which mattered more: the past, the present, or the future? The poll ran for three days and over 2,000 people voted, 58% of whom voted for the present. It was pretty interesting to observe how the ratio of votes stayed exactly the same for the last 1,000 votes. I ran the poll out of my own curiosity, and my answer pretty much coincides with Jim’s.

Which do you think is more important, and why? Reply to this email with your thoughts :)


I highly recommend reading this post. Alan Kay has some really insightful nuggets that I don’t think you’ll hear much of anywhere else. Some of my favorite points (and from further elaboration over emailing him):

  • Reading hundreds of books per year is the bare minimum. You need to find your community, people with diverse viewpoints that you can bounce ideas off of.

  • He’s a big supporter of college and grad school, despite their shortcomings, and finds them favorable over autodidacts. A university context will force to learn what you didn’t even know was worthwhile. A good educator will see that a student is trying to get from A to B, and try to introduce them to a C they never knew existed or didn’t think was important.

  • It’s extremely important to fluently learn a number of things that aren't your direct interests. These may or may not be enjoyable, but the point is to broaden your scope beyond what’s immediately appealing.

  • The best technological innovations happened with in-person teams.


Observed by psychologist Wolfgang Köhler through experimentation in 1929, the bouba/kiki effect refers to the non-arbitrary mapping between shapes and sounds.

Booba and Kiki shapes

The effect was weakly observed in Köhler’s experiment, and so another experiment was conducted by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard in 2008 with American undergraduates and Tamil speakers in India. In both cases, 95 to 98% associated kiki with the sharp shape (left in the picture) and bouba with the curvy one (right). Further work by Daphne Maurer and her colleagues suggest that the effect may be visible in children as young as 2.5 years.

What does this mean? The human brain can attach abstract meanings to shapes and sounds in a consistent way.


Weekly Brews are recurring interviews and Q&A sessions with experts in science and technology for members of the Ambitious community. This last Sunday we talked to Ryan Delk, COO of Omni. We covered:

  • The tech and startup scene in Nairobi, Kenya, and what advantages sub-saharan Africa has over Silicon Valley.

  • How the access economy will impact consumerism, credit and debt.

  • What startups Ryan is most interested in and excited about.

Some key takeaways include:

  • Take more risks early. We over-emphasize the downsides in our decisions.

  • Send more emails than you’re comfortable with. People are surprisingly more open to chatting than you think.

  • The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that everyone else has it all figured out.

This Sunday’s guest is Harold Justice, ex-engineer and rocket scientist who worked on the Apollo space program. If you’re interested in Weekly Brews, apply to the community here.


  • Community Heartbeat is a UK-based charity with a great idea: they turn those old red telephone booths into kiosks equipped with defibrillators. I’d love to see this idea brought over to the US.

  • Golden is mapping human knowledge. They just raised a new round, backed by a16z, Founders Fund, and others. A friend told me about Golden not too long ago, and it’s one of the best knowledge-sourcing platform I’ve seen (and I’ve been hunting for a while).


A patent filed in January suggests a sequence of lights as a possible solution to motion sickness in cars. It uses the lights to simulate the car's direction of travel. Although it’s technically designed for autonomous cars, this has practical applications for the present by attaching the lights to the frames of glasses, goggles, etc.

Thanks for reading :)


011: "China Shock" jobs, equations for fun, and philosophy in k-pop


Has our conception of time changed? Is prioritization of speed at fault?

It feels like as load times decrease, we become more impatient. Fifteen years ago, we had no problem waiting five or ten seconds for a webpage to load. Today, we’re more likely to close a webpage if it doesn’t immediately load rather than wait for it to do so.

What happened to those ten seconds?


  • Your Tax Return Is None of My Business. The argument for publishing all tax returns is silly. I can see why people want to know where politicians are getting their money from, but why drag 300 million innocent people into this mess? It opens up a route for income-based discrimination.

  • The Impact of Chinese Trade on US Employment. I’ve always been confused by all the “China took our jobs, we lost our jobs” claims. If China really had taken that many jobs, shouldn’t the state of the economy be a lot worse if a lot of people were unemployed? It turns out that about 1/3 of the “China Shock” losses in manufacturing came from firms that switched to non-manufacturing codes. Numbers do lie, folks.

  • The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy. The Soviets and Chinese had similar rules regarding agriculture, state-owned enterprises and foreign trade. Why did they work in China and not the USSR?




What makes Japan’s streets so alluring?

As one Twitter user pointed out, it’s the lack of on-street parking. Streets are a lot smaller and more walkable. You’re legally required to find a place to store the car, and it can’t be on the street. There are often elevator-like mechanisms where you can store your car, but even driving is rare when public transit is so well planned.

Thank you for reading :)


010: Psychometrics, optogenetics, and Rich Barton's playbook

Greetings! I’ve been thinking on how to restructure my blog/newsletter combo. I’ve decided to exclusively stick to sending out weekly links here, and exclusively leave blog posts up on my blog. I’ll of course link to any new posts by me in the newsletter.

  • Investing in charities (scihub). The role of the stock market in philanthropic ventures in the Victorian era, and the impact of financialization on philanthropy itself.

  • A history of psychometrics (scihub). There’s a great section in there on the IQ test and how the US military used psychometrics in the 20th century. Also some great explanation of the current models used in the field.

  • The Rich Barton playbook is underrated. If you don’t know who Rich is, he founded Expedia, Glassdoor and Zillow, and just announced a few weeks ago of his return to Zillow as CEO. It’s uncommon to hear of someone start three multi-billion dollar companies, but Rich has managed to do that by bringing information to the masses and dominating search.

  • Morgan Housel with a new piece on how people’s personal experiences shape the way they think about risk and reward.

  • Loonshots (book). I just finished reading this book, and I highly recommend it. If you want to understand how to manage teams and encourage crazy ideas that transform industries, this is the perfect reading material.

Quotes from The Collected Schizophrenias

I really enjoyed reading Esmé Wang's The Collected Schizophrenias. It's a short book, only about 200 pages, and you could probably finish it in a day (it took me three because I was a little busier than usual). I recommend you read this book. Here are my 10 favorite snippets.

Humans are the arbiters of which diagnoses are given to other humans––who are, in most cases, suffering, and at the mercy of doctors whose diagnostic decisions hold great power. Giving someone a diagnosis of schizophrenia will impact how they see themselves. It will change how the interact with friends and family, The diagnosis will affect how they are seen by the medical community, the legal system, the Transportation Security Administration, and so on.

Even now, she doesn't consider herself an X on the family tree, preferring to keep herself a mild circle, absolved on the page despite her own history of suicidal ideation, panic, and hiding in closets.

The story of schizophrenia is one with a protagonist, "the schizophrenic," who is first a fine and good vessel with fine and good things inside of it, and then becomes misshapen through the ravages of psychosis; the vessel becomes prone to being filled with nasty things. Finally, the wicked thoughts and behaviors that may ensue become inseparable from the person, who is now unrecognizable from what they once were.

Humans might all be ciphers to one another, but people with mental illness are particularly opaque because of their broken brains. We cannot be trusted about anything, including our own experiences.

Sometimes, my mind does fracture, leaving me frightened of poison in my tea or corpses in the parking lot. But then it reassembles, and I am once again a recognizable self.

In [Elyn R. Sak's study about the nature of high-functioning schizophrenia], employment remains the primary marker of someone who is high-functioning, as having a job is the most reliable sign that you can pass in the world as normal. Most critically, a capitalist society values productivity in its citizens above all else, and those with mental illness are much less likely to be productive in ways considered valuable by adding to the cycle of production and profit. 

Because I am capable of achievement, I find myself uncomfortable around those who are visibly psychotic and audibly disorganized.

If the conversation winds its way to my diagnosis, I emphasize my normalcy. See my ordinary, even superlative appearance! Witness the fact that I am articulate. Rewind our interaction and see if you can spot cracks in the facade. See if you can, in sifting through your memory, find hints of insanity to make sense of what I've said about who I am. After all, what kind of lunatic has a fashionable pixie cut, wears red lipstick, dresses in pencil skirts and tucked-in blouses? What sort of psychotic wears Loeffler Randall heels without tottering?

In the language of cancer, people describe a thing that "invades" them so that they can "battle" the cancer. No one ever says that a person is a cancer, or that they have become cancer, but they do say that a person is manic-depressive or schizophrenic, once those illnesses have taken hold.

...institutions of higher education fear liability, because no wants to sued over a student's suicide, or held responsible for a mass shooting. According to many who live and work at them, colleges and universities can't realistically be expected to give students with severe mental illness the treatment they need.

We are, in the end, linked by desperation based in suffering, and based on a system of conventional medicine that not only has no method of alleviating that suffering, but also accuses us of psychosomatic pathology.

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