[Podcast] Balaji Srinivasan: Living in the Future — North Star Podcast
[Podcast] Balaji Srinivasan: Living in the Future — North Star Podcast

[Podcast] Balaji Srinivasan: Living in the Future — North Star Podcast

My notes on a conversation between Balaji Srinivasan and David Perell.

Balajis's (@Balajis) background: He's worked as the Chief Technology Officer at Coinbase and a General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz. In the world of academia, he holds a BS/MS/PhD in Electrical Engineering and an MS in Chemical Engineering, all from Stanford University. He's also taught at Stanford, where his online course has reached 250,000 students worldwide.

David's (@David_Perell) background: David is known as “The Writing Guy” on Twitter. He has an online writing school called Write of Passage, writes two weekly newsletters – Monday Musings and Friday Finds. He also hosts the North Star Podcast.


I write a weekly newsletter, The Long Game, that covers health, wellness, better thinking, building a company and other interesting stuff I find online.

2:38 Studying and learning

At first, Balaji thought he was going to be a professor at Stanford or MIT.

His experience in academia taught him to lean quickly.

How to learn quickly?

  • Balaji starts with doing problems, without reading the textbooks.
  • Running into to a roadblock makes you realize what you don't know.

What are the similarities and differences between technical learning and liberal arts learning?

Balaji got interested in liberal arts to win arguments.

Balaji links his liberal arts learnings to a concrete problem.

For example: "How to run an organization?"

6:54 Why Balaji thinks we are severely underutilizing the collaborative potential of the internet

The Polymath Project:

"The Polymath Project is a collaboration among mathematicians to solve important and difficult mathematical problems by coordinating many mathematicians to communicate with each other on finding the best route to the solution."

One thing to remember is that the Polymath Project worked.

Balaji believes we are severely underutilizing the collaborative potential of the internet.

There is so much more to be done with the collaborative tools on the internet, Google Docs, Wikipedia are only the beginning.

"You can see people fighting in real time on Twitter, but you can't see them build things together is real time." — @Balajis

Cryptocurrency could help with that.

12:45 How remembering references to knowledge instead of the knowledge itself gives Balaji a better way to argue his points.

How Balaji thinks:

  • He tries to store the minimum amount of information, and uncompact it when he needs.
  • He uses references to reinforce his points (you bring scholars with you in the argument.)

13:47 Why searching for people who are "hungry and can teach us something" serves everybody who is involved very well.

Balaji sold two companies for $100 million.

Balaji searches for people that are "hungry and can teach us something."

He is almost "anti credentials", and he's very excited when someone is very good and doesn't have renown credentials.

That's an opportunity to pay them well, to give them the biggest opportunity they had in their life.

From a price/performance standpoint, what you want is the genius no one knows yet — Balaji

The writing skill of a candidate is very important.

The most challenging thing to do as an entrepreneur is to hire people that are better than you.

  • To do that, think of skills as vectors: you may be worse at robotics, but better at mathematics.

19:39 The "tour of duty" and how to create a great strategy for developing and managing yourself and your team

Reid Hoffman's concept of the "tour of duty" is useful:

The customer is merciless, so an organization must be prepared to always satisfy its customers.

A basic advice, but a lot of people still forget to do it: Writing up what your goals are is crucial.

By putting into words what you expect from yourself and from other people, everyone is help accountable.

24:25 The movement from a centralized century to a decentralized century and why Balaji feels the future is moving more towards his lifestyle.

It seems that Balaji is living in the future, why is that?

Balaji has always been interested in the fields that are becoming the most important sectors of today's society (ML, genomics, remote work, crypto)

2020 is the year the internet starts — Balaji
  • The 9-5 person wants to work at a defined period of time consistently then go home and do some sports.
  • Balaji prefers maximizing the number of hours he works every day, 16 hours some days, almost no work on other days.
  • For some reasons, this new way of work is becoming the future.

For example, Balaji was wondering about fully remote conferences way before the COVID-19 pandemic.

31:19 How technology hyper-deflates the market of everything it touches

Prices are going up in education and healthcare


The lesson of that:

  • Every area that technology has touched the price hyper-deflates.
  • Every area the state has touched impairs increasing labor productivity.

With the pandemic, tech is going to have more impact on education as the price remained the same for Zoom classes.

44:49 Why abstraction means progress as a culture up to a certain point and can become harmful beyond that.

It is really hard to make something easy. — Balaji

Making complex things easy is extremely important, and it's lagging skill right now.

This problem boils down to: How could we incentivize useful content online?

48:57 How to optimize your information diet to make you smarter, more effective, and more honest about where you spend your energy.

Balaji has a landing page to help create media millionaires:

You have to rank order what you're paying attention to because you can't care about everything.

There's an analogy between your diet and your information diet

In the same way than with food, Twitter and a lot of social media are giving us intellectual diabetes. — David Perell

You can see a spike of blood glucose, and the equivalent with social media would be: you are reading Twitter, and you should be able to see a spike in cortisol.

Social media are meant to provoke an extreme emotional reaction in the same way Hollywood learned to put sex and violence in its movies.

We need a different form of media, an optimized information diet based on relevance and skill-building. — Balaji

54:07 The future of online education and why it doesn't end with Wikipedia.

The question is what skill do you want to build?

A good framework for this is the "Mnemonic Framework" by Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen

The idea is: rather than reading recreationally, if you read to remember, the outcome will be much better.

An example is "Quantum Country", a "book" made to help you remember more of what you read.

These materials show you can learn more in a shorter amount of time.

A big part of the next generation of content can't be like the current social media where you interact by liking and Retweeting It has to be about learning and earning. — Balaji

Social media are optimized so you consume the maximum of content.

There is an opposite design paradigm: giving the maximum if value to someone in the minimum amount of time.

For example, at earn.com you can earn $5 in a few seconds by answering a few questions.

That concept of tasking over the internet could be expanded.

For example: if you're a doctor you could be part of a study to train a cancer algorithm.

This is one of the thing Mandelbrot talks about in The Misbehavior of Markets

  • There are certain classes of eyeball problems where humans are better than machines.

Balaji adds: once we can put the problem in a machine format, the machine is better at solving the problem, but it can very hard to put it in the machine format.

59:32 New ways to look at incentive structures for writing and how it inspires technological and social growth.

If you as a writer, or as content creator add value to your readers, you should get a cut of that.

Many startups are inspired by a piece of writing.

How can the writers can be paid from generating this inspiration?

For example, Nicholas Kristof's paper on child mortality inspired Bill Gates to invest in better toilets for the developing world.

Idea of Balaji to create a better incentive structure: What if people were seeking investment through a forum on your site, and you get an affiliate referral.

Now, as a writer, you're trying to attract entrepreneurs to your blog to push them to build things based on your content.

If the number of page views is your only metric, you're going to get pushed to write low level pieces.

1:04:27 How to bridge the gap between Hollywood, big data, and education.

Why Balaji is focused on writing right now?

  • It's because media and social media are upstream of everything.
Code is how machines know what to do. Media is how people know what to do — Balaji

A great way to bridge the gap between entertainment and education is edutainment.

It's possible to do, but it hasn't been tried yet.

Applying Hollywood methods to learning would be a powerful move.

The problem with Hollywood type content is that you miss the important feedback loop.

The personal feedback is not scalable, but the mnemonic framework is.

1:12:43 The future of the internet and why the pseudonymous economy seems likely to Balaji.

Why does the Pseudonymous Economy is going to be a major change in our decade?

Balaji gave a talk on the Pseudonymous Economy:

Here's a little summary:

Crypto pseudonyms are going to be the best pseudonyms to use.

These pseudonyms have encryptions, payments, messaging and more.

1:15:04 How we can use a "crypto oracle" to create an unfalsifiable history of our digital information.

We have a ton of data, but it's siloed.

Articles are based on feeds of data. What if we took all the feeds of data and we put them on chain. It's not just accessible on a server, it's posted on a blockchain which will never go down.

Why is it important: it's digital history that can't be falsified.

Timestamps are way more important than people think.

1:21:31 Why a worldwide ledger of record is the future we need in an information-driven world.

How is it something that's worth being excited about?

Crypto oracles are going to be one of the most important technologies of this decade. — Balaji

If there was a feed of every single Coronavirus death, then anybody who is skeptical could pull of the raw data from the thousands of the hospitals.

When you post things on chain, it's much more auditable. It's really hard to falsify.

With crypto oracles, you can't delete history anymore, it creates ground truths.

Facts matter because the narrative that is based on facts will have more contact with reality and therefore more technological and economic strength. — Balaji

1:26:59 Why Balaji believes that the pinnacle and goal of technology is to help humans live forever.

Balaji wrote a piece on Life Extension and the purpose of technology.

The main idea is:

If the purpose of technology is to reduce scarcity, then the ultimate purpose of technology is to eliminate mortality. — Balaji

Time is the ultimate scarcity.

Life extension and reversing aging is possible, the technology is being developed.

Why can't we take a potion and restore how we were at 25? — Balaji

Humans aren't like cars, there is hard drop at 120 years old. No humans made it to 1,000 years old.

We have to start talking much more about our values than about our valuation. Money is only a tool. What really matters is building something you can't buy. Life expectancy used to be the metric of technological progress. — Balaji

In the 2020 we're going to see more focus on the real stuff (brain-machine interface, curing loss of sight...) We can start making miracles happen with technology.

People are ready:

1:32:50 How to build a digital country through writing.

Herzl did it with Israel.

How to do it with writing:

  • Write online, build a community
  • Give everybody a VR headset and build a city in VR (a lot of people are going to VR architects in the 2020s)
  • Enforce government and physical levels of civility
  • Digital currency
  • Crypto crowd-fund territory

It's a new model for legitimacy. It's not inherited.

The idea here is: Founding as opposed to inheriting.

1:39:34 Why genomics needs more attention from the general population and technology.

Genomics is important because your genome is your OS.

  • You understand whether you can metabolize caffein, and understand how your body works.
  • Doing private aggregation of genomes will be a big thing.
  • We start to learn how to edit genomes.
  • Genomics is a great way for software people to get into biomedicine because genomics encompasses omics in general.
If you had a genomics apps and your barcoded a food, you could see whether or not it would affect you. — Balaji

1:44:42 Why writers will be the future of millionaires and billionaires.

Why does Balaji think that writing now has venture returns?

Because you're no longer monetizing the content, but you're monetizing the action outside.

Open source media is to the existing media what open source software was to Microsoft. — Balaji

All the content is free and you monetize the actions that happen outside. The content is there to train you and to help you do things in the real world.

We're radically under-monetizing writing.

That's why Write of Passage is about writing for free and then get the benefits of writing show up in other parts of your life.

Leaving Note

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I write a weekly newsletter, The Long Game, that covers health, wellness, better thinking, building a company and other interesting stuff I find online.