People Who Shaped My Intellectual Growth

I came across Tracy-Gregory Gilmore’s list of people who have influenced him, and I found the idea charming. Exposure to a few different people’s ideas has been incalculably valuable to me, and I want to publicly thank them like Gilmore did.

These are people I consider “remote mentors” (a concept that I wrote about in August, 2016). Two writers in particular have profoundly shaped how I see the world: Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex and Ben Thompson of Stratechery. Their names are repeated on the list below, but they deserve special recognition.

In chronological order:

  • Vladimir Nabokov, who penned the infamous novel Lolita, is my favorite author. That book in particular turned me onto postmodernism and moral complexity.
  • Ben Thompson of Stratechery is a business analyst who writes about the tech industry. Reading his articles got me interested in business and economics, and I learned a lot from his commentary on incentives and the structure(s) of markets.
  • Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex is… well, professionally he’s a psychiatrist, but online he’s a cultural philosopher. His essays on identity, community, and politics have been very illuminating. Everything is signaling!
  • Venkatesh Rao, creator of Ribbonfarm and Breaking Smart, is a writer in a similar vein to Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex. The label “cultural philosopher” once again feels like it fits. His area of expertise is breaking people’s mental models and then helping reconstruct them.
  • Meredith Patterson and Alice Maz are both programmers who wrote essays that helped me become more empathetic. Patterson wrote “Okay, Feminism, It’s Time We Had a Talk About Empathy” and “When Nerds Collide”. Maz wrote “Splain it to Me”.
  • Adam Elkus and David Auerbach are two polymath scholars who incisively understand the meta-politics of the cyber age (which is only just dawning, I might add).
  • Lou Keep’s Uruk Series is a phenomenal tool for understanding modern discontent and the failure cases of social control systems. Start with the essay on Seeing Like a State and then skip to the essay on witch doctors.

Last updated 4/25/2019. Purely prose tweaks this time.

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

Ambiguity = Opportunity

Venkatesh Rao wrote an essay for his Breaking Smart newsletter about uncertainty versus ambiguity:

“High uncertainty tolerance requires you to develop analytical skills. High ambiguity tolerance requires you to develop insight skills. […] The risk of uncertainty wrangling is being wrong. The risk of ambiguity wrangling is seeing something where there is nothing, or vice versa.”

If we roll with Rao’s implied definitions, uncertainty is being unsure about facts, whereas ambiguity is being unsure about interpretation. (This is perhaps beside the point, but I’m not sure the distinction between the words “uncertainty” and “ambiguity” is actually so clear-cut.)

My guess is that most of Rao’s readers work in tech and probably a high proportion of them are aspiring startup founders (I’m not excluding myself from either of those categories). I can easily see how this uncertainty and ambiguity matrix applies to either investing or entrepreneurship.

Let’s say you’re examining a market. You don’t know how many people have XYZ characteristic. That’s an uncertainty problem. Or maybe you do know how many people have XYZ characteristic, but you don’t know what to do about it. That’s an ambiguity problem.

Rao’s proposed solution is free-form intellectual play — he encourages, “it’s not wasted effort because there is no concept of waste in true play.”

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

Disclosure: I am a member of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on an Amazon link from this site and subsequently buy something, I will receive a small commission (at no cost to you).