Things you might find interesting too III (April 2022 edition)

Danny Buerkli
4 min readApr 25, 2022

I’m periodically sharing some of the books and ideas I‘ve come across over the past days and weeks. I hope that if you haven‘t come across these yet, you might find them as interesting, useful, and enjoyable as I did. Writing this down also helps me make sense of what‘s going on.

So here are a few books, ideas, essays, and podcasts that you might also find worthwhile:

„Who killed my grandfather?“: BBC journalist Mai Noman tells the moving story of her grandfather‘s assassination in Beirut. In 1974 Mohamed Noman, then former Foreign Minister of North Yemen, was shot by a politically motivated assassin at the age of 41.

Mai Noman tries to piece together who killed her grandfather and why. Her moving podcast and documentary are not only about her family’s loss. They’re also about which course Yemen might have taken, had Noman, an influential progressive figure, not been murdered.

Listen to the podcast or watch the documentary.

Still from Mai Noman’s documentary on her grandfather’s assassination

MIT‘s statement on why the SAT requirement is being reinstated: MIT recently decided to reinstate the use of the SAT in future undergraduate admissions cycles. In a blogpost Stu Schmill, the Dean of Admissions, explains why.

If you’re not familiar with this highly contentious debate: many schools abandoned the use of standardized tests in college admissions because of concerns that these would negatively impact diversity efforts.

Schmill’s blog post is a masterpiece. It’s analytically rigorous and develops a convincing argument for why standardized tests such as the SAT help MIT identify “academically prepared, socioeconomically disadvantaged students who could not otherwise demonstrate readiness”. And at the same time it’s warm, empathetic, and easy to read.

It’s an impressive feat and a demonstration that it’s possible for institutions to communicate in a way that unmistakably gets the point across while also making them sound human.

Nudging vs. educating the public: Gerd Gigerenzer’s 2015 review piece on the “Supposed Evidence for Libertarian Paternalism” is outstanding. It makes a persuasive case that the influential idea of “nudging” leads us to underinvest in educating the public.

If people must be “nudged” to do the right thing, then there’s no point in teaching them how to, say, interpret probabilities. Wrong, says Gigerenzer. There’s plenty of evidence that these skills can be taught rather easily.

His piece resonated strongly with me in the context of many Covid policies we’ve been able to observe over the past years. Many countries never bothered to properly explain why mask wearing was useful and important, instead relying on strong behavioral nudges to get people to do so anyway.

Gigerenzer would presumably argue that this is a mistake. As he writes in his article: “the claim that we are hardly educable lacks evidence and forecloses the true alternative to nudging: teaching people to become risk savvy.”

Understanding “failure demand”: value demand is “contact between user and service provider that’s about doing the thing the service is intended to do”. Failure demand is “contact that results from a problem with the service”.

The difference between the two is essential and the concept of “failure demand” has helped me get a great deal of conversations unstuck. Stephen Gill’s blogpost delivers a concise summary of the idea, first — to the best of my knowledge — published by John Seddon (for example in “Systems Thinking in the Public Sector”).

The idea of “failure demand” is also useful when thinking about things like chatbots for government websites. Is this chatbot meant to address failure demand? If so — and the answer almost invariably is “yes” — we should seek to reduce failure demand, not come up with ways of serving it more efficiently.

Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot”: I had never gotten around to reading Asimov’s sci-fi classic and finally did so. It’s status as a cornerstone of sci-fi literature is well deserved and given that it was published in 1950 the book has aged astoundingly well.

Asimov anticipated with eery prescience the outlines of basically every single question we are now confronted with when it comes to how we deal with robots and artificial intelligence.

First edition cover of “I, Robot” (published in 1950)

Finally, here are two newsletters I’ve been reading closely over the past weeks:

Adam Tooze’s “Chartbook”: Adam Tooze, professor of history at Columbia, has a daily newsletter on Substack. In his words: “More organized and coherent than twitter. More freewheeling than what you might read from me in FT, Guardian, Foreign Policy.”

Eclectic, freewheeling indeed, and fun to read.

Zvi Mowshowitz’s “Don’t Worry About the Vase”: Zvi has been providing analysis on both the pandemic as well as, more recently, the invasion of Ukraine.

Zvi’s analysis is sharp, epistemologically honest, and significantly deeper than almost anything you’d see in a newspaper.