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Nabeel S. Qureshi

Film, Shakespeare, AI, startups, and more

Nabeel is a Visiting Scholar at the Mercatus Center focused on developing an optimistic vision for AI, but as you’ll see in this conversation his breadth of interests goes about as wide as you can imagine. We talk about foreign film, interpreting the Iliad, Shakespeare, Wittgenstein, Derek Parfit, SF vs. NYC, AI, startups, and a lot more.


(0:00:49) Nabeel's favorite directors

(0:02:59) Underrated regions for film

(0:04:33) Nabeel's favorite Hollywood movies

(0:06:20) What makes a movie visually inspiring?

(0:09:34) Shakespeare on film

(0:10:31) Miyazaki

(0:12:03) Paris, Texas

(0:14:34) Jia Zhangke

(0:16:12) When is the movie better than the book?

(0:18:06) CGI

(0:18:44) Robert Bresson

(0:20:30) Love in film

(0:21:50) Director's Nabeel hasn't been able to "get"?

(0:22:34) Film theory

(0:24:15) Do the arts matter for founders?

(0:26:08) Going deep on great books

(0:29:31) The Iliad

(0:32:24) Tolstoy and Shakespeare

(0:34:21) Henry IV

(0:37:51) Shakespeare’s Sonnets

(0:38:56) Secondary literature

(0:41:18) Rene Girard

(0:42:57) Norman Rush's "Mating"

(0:44:27) Watership Down

(0:46:13) Harold Bloom

(0:48:04) Sci-fi

(0:49:32) Authors Nabeel hasn't been able to get

(0:50:35) Tech pessimists

(0:54:40) LLMs and the big questions

(0:57:59) Peter Hacker

(0:59:58) Wittgenstein

(1:01:47) Derek Parfit

(1:03:55) Moral intuition

(1:05:13) Do EAs make good CEOs or founders?

(1:07:20) Selfishness

(1:09:43) Favorite albums

(1:10:26) Beethoven

(1:11:27) Modernized opera

(1:12:38) NYC

(1:13:38) Chess

(1:14:31) California

(1:17:57) Fashion

(1:18:57) Eating in NYC

(1:19:52) Travel

(1:21:40) High school

(1:22:30) Twitter

(1:31:05) SF and AI

(1:32:38) AI doomers

(1:34:28) AGI timelines

(1:36:07) Nabeel's LLM usage

(1:43:42) Science brain vs founder brain

(1:47:48) Iteration vs conviction

(1:51:02) Is art education or entertainment?

(1:54:53) Sabbaticals

(1:58:53) What makes Nabeel imbalanced as a personality?

(2:00:05) Cold emails

(2:01:43) Meditating

(2:04:09) Regret

(2:05:16) Reminding yourself you will die

(2:08:04) GoCardless and startup culture

(2:13:37) Ideas vs execution

(2:16:10) Peter Thiel and Alex Karp?

(2:18:38) Philosophers in tech

(2:21:19) Learnings from Palantir

(2:23:18) Conclusion



Note: The transcript was created before I added the intro, so timestamps will be off by a few seconds.

[00:00:00] Dan: We're hoping to cover a lot today, Nabeel, so thank you.

[00:00:34] Nabeel Qureshi: Thanks for having me.

[00:00:36] Dan: Who are some of your favorite directors and what makes them great?

[00:00:41] Nabeel: Yes, I'm really into film. I guess I would divide this into the obvious directors and then maybe some directors that I think are quite underrated. With what I would call the obvious directors, I think people like Ingmar Bergman, Yasujirō Ozu. I really like film from Asia, so Abbas Kiarostami, he's an Iranian director, Edward Yang from Taiwan. Yes, I think all of them go very deep.

I tend to like slower cinema for reasons we can talk about. I think slower cinema, it forces you to engage your attention a lot deeper, it forces you to switch into a deeper mode of thinking, so a lot of the directors I like tend to be slower. Some directors I think are underrated. I really like the British director Mike Leigh. He has this very unique way of making his movies where he doesn't start with a script, which is very unusual. He starts with a set of characters and a scenario, and he gets his actors to improvise what's happening, the events, and then they write the script as they go.

What that results in is this very naturalistic, organic form of filmmaking, which I think is brilliant. Another one is John Cassavetes, who's an American director. He was active in the '60s and '70s. He's really similar, actually. His movies are really unusual. They're very jarring to watch because they don't use the classic Hollywood film language, if you will. He'll have a shot, and it's like three quarters of somebody's face or something, and they're talking off camera, and you're like, "What is this?"

I think one of the functions of art for me is this idea of defamiliarization, so taking what you normally think of as experience and then showing you why it's weird or strange in some way. I think both of these directors, and the directors I like generally, just force you to experience things in a very weird, jarring, unfamiliar way, and then that allows you to break through to a high level of understanding.

[00:02:49] Dan: Okay. You listen to a lot of directors that are from all over the world. Are there any particular regions that you think are underrated for directors?

[00:02:56] Nabeel: Yes. There's areas of the world that have had waves of great directors, right? People are familiar with Hong Kong. The '90s was a golden era. You had John Woo, Wong Kar-wai, all these directors. Taiwan had its famous new wave. I think there's a lot of those. Iran is a really good place for movies. Obviously France. I think Southeast Asia is one that I'm really excited by that maybe gets a little less attention, although increasingly it does get more attention now.

There's a director I really, really like. I think he's probably one of the best living directors called Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and he is from Thailand. He makes, again, these very slow, very mystical movies about characters, largely in Thailand, although his most recent movie was actually set in Colombia. His movies I think of as taking Buddhist ideas very seriously and very literally.

What if reincarnation was actually true? He likes to blur the boundaries between reality, vision, dream, memory, all of these things in a very poetic way. I think a lot of these more unusual ideas are starting to come out of Southeast Asia. There's another new movie I haven't seen yet, but I think it's like Dreams in a Yellow Cocoon or something like that that I'm excited to watch. It's also from Southeast Asia.

[00:04:23] Dan: Oh, interesting, interesting. Okay, so what do you think about Hollywood movies? You mentioned you like slow. Hollywood is probably known for the opposite, very fast movies. Are there any particular Hollywood movies that you think are great?

[00:04:36] Nabeel: Yes, I think Hollywood has its ups and downs. I think most people would agree that the last few years haven't been amazing for Hollywood, mainly because it feels like whenever I go to a movie theater, at least as of a year ago, it was a lot of Marvel movies and sequels and things like that. With that being said, yes, I think there've been a lot of good mainstream movies lately. I enjoyed May December pretty recently. I really liked The Fabelmans, which was made by Steven Spielberg. I think that's a super underrated movie.

It's really about the curse of being a genius or being talented in some way. It's about this big Jewish family with lots of spiky personalities. I think it's brilliant. Yes, I think going back, a lot of the classics people talk about are actually really good. I love The Matrix. I love The Godfather, parts one and two. I think the classic Hollywood movies are good. I do wish they would make more movies that were for thoughtful people. It did feel like you saw more of that in the '90s than you do today.

[00:05:45] Dan: Yes. Yes. The '90s had a lot of Matrix-style movies, John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. It felt like they really hit on that idea a lot.

[00:05:55] Nabeel: Right. Yes. Eternal Sunshine is a good example. It's something people still talk about today. It was for a mainstream audience. It had Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in it. It's beautiful, and it's intriguing, and it plays with all these deep questions, I think, right?

[00:06:10] Dan: Yes. In my conversation with Scott Sumner, we talked a bit about movies. One thing that he noted particularly that makes him like movies better than TV is that TV focuses mostly on narrative, and movies put a lot more attention on the visual aspect. What do you think makes a movie visually inspiring?

[00:06:28] Nabeel: Yes. I think the important thing about movies is that they take place in time in this very contiguous way. Your attention is forced onto the screen the whole time, and you're experiencing time at the rhythm that the director wants you to. Like I mentioned, a lot of the directors that I like to watch, they have these very long, slow takes because I think they're trying to get you into this rhythm where you're paying attention to ordinary life in a new way.

I think of the visually striking thing as a piece of that. I think in everyday life, you're like, "Oh, that's a tree. That's a desk. That's a chair." They don't look strange. They look normal. I think the most talented directors, they will take very ordinary objects and make them look strange. Maybe a good example is if you watch Tarkovsky's movie, Stalker, it ends with this unbelievable sequence. I don't think it's like a super plot-driven movie, so apologies for any spoilers, but I will spoil the ending.

At the end, he just cuts to this shot of this little girl, and she's sitting at a table much like this one, and it has a glass on it. A train rumbles by outside. A Beethoven symphony starts playing, and then the girl stares at the glass, and the glass starts moving along the table very slowly. This just goes on for a while. It's implied that the girl has psychic powers, maybe because it's near Chernobyl or whatever it is. I felt like that's a really nice example where it's a girl, a table and a chair, but all of your attention is strained onto these ordinary objects.

[00:08:21] Dan: Yes. Yes. In movies like this, one thing that Tyler says a lot is that, he thinks 2001, he got to be on the big screen. Do you agree that these types of slower, more visually inspiring movies are better seen on the big screen, or are home theaters good enough that you can get a setup that works just as well?

[00:08:38] Nabeel: I think home theaters are definitely good enough. The big screen always helps. I do try and go to the theater myself a lot just because I think that watching it concurrently with a lot of people is its own unique experience. It is a little bit like participating in a conscious dream. It's important to the experience. I think that there is some barrier to stopping it, whereas I think to take the other extreme, if you're watching it on your phone on a train or something, you keep getting interrupted. You don't really get in the flow.

I think the important thing about movies is they are like waking dreams. To the degree that the environment can simulate that, it's great. I think if you have a really good home theater setup, you have a good sound system, you have a big screen, good for you. I think that's a really good way to do it as well.

[00:09:24] Dan: Are there any great Shakespeare film adaptations? Any favorite ones?

[00:09:29] Nabeel: Yes, I really like the Baz Luhrmann Romeo & Juliet. I think it's phenomenal. It does a very good job of reimagining without doing violence to the original play. I especially like the way he rendered Mercutio. I thought that was really cool. That's one. I haven't seen too many. I do like Kenneth Branagh in general. He's a pretty famous English Shakespearean actor who's done a lot of movie adaptations.

I remember in school they showed us his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. I remember really enjoying that. I don't know, Shakespeare on film, I don't find that it has quite the same power for me as Shakespeare in the theater still. The most visceral experiences I've had with Shakespeare have been live in the theater, and it's bittersweet because they're impossible to recreate.

[00:10:22] Dan: Another director you cited that you love before, Miyazaki. What do you think that he understands that maybe Disney, other animation studios are overlooking, and they don't quite get?

[00:10:31] Nabeel: Oh, yes. This is one of my favorite topics. I think Miyazaki just makes movies for adults that are also for children. He really takes children seriously as full beings, if you will. That's very important. If you watch interviews with him, he's always saying, I think kids have a very good sense of the issues that we think of as adult issues. Life and death is a simple example. Even a movie that's relatively on the child-like side of his canon, like My Neighbor Totoro, it's actually a pretty serious plot because the mother is on the verge of death, and she's sick the whole time. It's showing how these two children cope with that.

Another example is Kiki's Delivery Service. It's charming, right? It's this teenage girl, she's going to become a witch, and she's going to learn to fly. I feel like Disney would take this in a very whimsical childlike direction. Actually, it's a drag, she moves to this Stockholm-like city. She has to get a job and work. It's a grind. She gets sick. Nobody cares about her. There's all these things that happen that you wouldn't really expect to happen in a kid's movie. Yes, I think his secret is he takes children very, very seriously, which I think most adults do not by default. He makes movies for children as though they were fully conscious beings.

[00:11:53] Dan: Another movie that you cited that, I think, was on the top of your list from last year is Paris, Texas. What do you think this movie says about America?

[00:12:03] Nabeel: I think it's more about how Wim Wenders looks at America.

[00:12:08] Dan: He's German, right?

[00:12:08] Nabeel: He's German. Exactly. Thank you. For context, it's set in Texas. Part of the movies, there's this place in Texas called Paris, and the characters often talk about it in this yearning way. The whole movie's shot in this very beautiful, hyper-saturated way. There's a lot of these shots of classic Americana. Diners, Coca-Cola vending machines, the Texan landscape, and it's done with this very loving eye.

It resonated with me. I immigrated here in 2017. For any immigrant to America, the classic images of America are very compelling. The first time you come to New York, you're like, "Why is this so familiar? I've seen these yellow taxis. I've seen these green street signs." He plays with that a lot. You never quite lose that. If you're an immigrant, and you like it here, you always appreciate the Americana. I just thought it was a very beautiful take on it by a foreign director.

[00:13:11] Dan: Do you have any thoughts or analysis on the the famous last scene?

[00:13:15] Nabeel: Yes, you mean when he's--

[00:13:16] Dan: Yes, when he's in the phone booth.

[00:13:18] Nabeel: He's driving away?

[00:13:20] Dan: I'm talking about when he when he revisits his wife.

[00:13:24] Nabeel: Right. Oh, oh, oh.

[00:13:26] Dan: He's sitting in the one-way mirror booth. Yes.

[00:13:29] Nabeel: The climactic scene.

[00:13:31] Dan: Yes.

[00:13:31] Nabeel: Because then he reunites her and the kid, and then he [crosstalk]

[00:13:37] Dan: Personally, the reason I asked, I thought that the one-way mirror scene was I was just stunned through the whole thing. I thought it was [crosstalk] pieces.

[00:13:44] Nabeel: Yes, me too. I was completely blown away by that. I was riveted. I think one thing that's underrated about that movie is the script writer. I might be getting his name wrong, but I think it's Sam Shepard. He's a famous playwright. I think the way that that monologue is scripted is brilliant. Yes, the way he plays visually with the fact that it's a one-way mirror, and then the way that faces converge. To your earlier question around the visuals, it's this visual way of conveying that they're forever tied together in this spiritual way. I was stunned by that. I'm glad you liked it, too.

[00:14:25] Dan: How important in Jia Zhangke's films, how important do you think the Chinese context is?

[00:14:31] Nabeel: Oh, in Jia Zhangke, yes, I think it's very important. He makes Chinese movies for a Chinese audience. It is also for a Western audience. Sorry, I guess I should revise this answer. I don't think knowing the Chinese context a ton going in is that important to appreciating the movies. I think you learn about his view of the Chinese context by watching those movies.

For example, actually, last night, I watched a movie called The World, which is about a park that was constructed in Beijing. It's meant to be a park that has all these world landmarks in it. They have the Eiffel Tower. They have the Arc de Triomphe. They have Big Ben from London. They have a replica of Manhattan there. They're all at one-third scale. A lot of the characters who work there, he shows their lives in a lot of detail.

This is done in 2004. Very much early hyper modernization, China. Yes, the characters have these moments, they're always joking about visiting Paris, and there's no chance that they're ever going to go to Paris because these are migrants who moved to Beijing to get jobs. There's a beautiful scene where the plane flies overhead, and these two characters are just watching it. They're like, "Do you know anyone who's ever been on a plane?" The other one's like, "No."

[00:15:54] Dan: Oh, interesting.

[00:15:54] Nabeel: I think you get all of this from watching the movie, but it does help to know a little bit about China.

[00:16:01] Dan: Yes. What does it take for the movie to be better than the book?

[00:16:06] Nabeel: Interesting question. I guess some examples I can think of where I felt that the movie was at least as good as the book. Lord of the Rings has to be mentioned. I love the books. They're very important and profound, I think. Those movies are absolutely insane. I'm trying to think what else. I don't know. Maybe the Godfather, actually?

[00:16:28] Dan: Oh, for sure. Yes. What do you think it was about the Lord of the Rings that made it-- Was it just the fact that it's a great movie, and a great movie is better than a great book? Is there something particular about that story that fits better in movie format, do you think?

[00:16:44] Nabeel: Yes, I think the best movie interpretations of books really make it their own but somehow do feel very true to the book as well. We all have this sense when we watch a movie adaptation, if the character's not quite right, or if the casting is wrong. I remember with The Lord of the Rings version, Elijah Wood was Frodo. Aragorn just looked exactly like I imagined Aragorn to look.

I think they nailed the casting and nailed those elements of the book. I don't think they fundamentally altered anything in the book that's super important. They really took advantage of the special properties of film. The scale, the way that they did away with CGI and constructed everything live is really, really impressive. Yes, I think essentially, an adaptation has to be its own work of art and work on its own level. Sometimes it does it better than the book. I think The Godfather is actually a really good example where I feel like the original is, they're almost poppy thrillers. Coppola takes his own experience of immigrating to America as an Italian and turns them into something more.

[00:17:57] Dan: Yes. Speaking of CGI, what is your view on this? Should all movies be constructed like The Lord of the Rings and just forego CGI in favor of really expensive and complicated theater setups? What makes for a better movie?

[00:18:12] Nabeel: I feel like I've seen fine examples of CGI, so I don't have a strong opinion here. I think any good artist or director is going to take these things and turn them to a good purpose. It is a bit of a turnoff when a movie has too much CGI, and it's super obvious. For example, I enjoyed Avatar, and that's almost entirely CGI, isn't it?

[00:18:34] Dan: Yes. Did Robert Bresson exceed Tolstoy in L'Argent?

[00:18:39] Nabeel: I don't think so. L'Argent is inspired by Tolstoy's short story. I think it's the, I want to say the Kreutzer sonata. Do you remember which one it is?

[00:18:51] Dan: Yes, I think I believe that's it.

[00:18:53] Nabeel: Yes, and I think not, basically. L'Argent is about this cold-blooded, ruthless killer. I feel like he's getting at the same territory that Dostoyevsky or the late 19th-century Russian existentialist adjacent novelists got to. It's still a really good achievement, but the Russians can explore, I think, more of the territory of things like Christianity and the transcendent. They dive deep into the intersection of the low elements of life with religion and Jesus and how he spoke about the poor and things like that.

I think books are actually really good for that because you can bring in text, and you can play with these intertextual references. I think in the movie, the killer is just so cold-blooded, and you don't really get a sense of what's behind him or what's driving him. Bresson does hint at these transcendent elements in the way he photographs things and in the cinematography, but I feel like he can't explore it in a way that's intellectually satisfying. Maybe that's an example where it would have worked better as a novel.

[00:20:06] Dan: Oh, interesting. Yes. These sort of deeply philosophical, deeply inner life, like why is this serial killer doing what he's doing, you think lends better to some of the Russian novelists then.

[00:20:16] Nabeel: I think so. Yes, I think so. Yes.

[00:20:18] Dan: Okay. Interesting. What film or films do you think showed the best insight into love and relationships?

[00:20:26] Nabeel: To love and relationships. I don't think I've found anything that's too satisfactory on this front, which is a weird answer. I think there's a general problem in art, which is it is very difficult to convey happiness and stability.

[00:20:46] Dan: Oh, interesting. Okay.

[00:20:47] Nabeel: Everything is about people breaking up, having arguments, cheating on each other, et cetera. There's lots of interesting explorations on that. Anna Karenina is a really good book about this, for example. I think the question I'm really interested in is what makes a good relationship, what makes a healthy relationship and what are some vivid examples of people having that.

For some reason that doesn't lend itself to good art. The philosopher Agnes Callard has this essay where she says art is for seeing evil, and she thinks the purpose of art is just to give you visceral experience of things going wrong. Maybe to develop your moral intuition. Yes, for me, I think film has endless rich examples of how things can go wrong. The characters are a little bit crazy or a little bit unstable, and it's entertaining. It's fun. It's deep to reflect on. For you in your life, you want to know what makes relationships go well.

[00:21:41] Dan: Yes. Are there any directors that you feel like you've never been able to really get or grok, or you feel like maybe people you respect or think that they're really great, but it doesn't do it for you?

[00:21:53] Nabeel: I haven't gotten as much into American filmmaking in the '50s to '70s, I would say as I would like. Things like the classic movies with Cary Grant, Westerns, John Ford, things like that. They're fun, but I'm not obsessed with them, and they feel a little dated to me maybe. I think I need to go back and revisit, but those have never resonated that much.

[00:22:24] Dan: Okay. You recently did a post where you said, "Hey, here's a bunch of books you can go read if you want to get really into film." I'm curious, how much does one actually need to understand film theory to really enjoy this? If I want to go enjoy Tarkovsky and really be blown away by that last scene where the girl is Beethoven symphony, psychic powers, do I need the film theory, or does it help enhance the experience, or can I just go watch it, enjoy it?

[00:22:47] Nabeel: You can definitely go watch it and enjoy it. I'm very skeptical of film theory. I've read these more abstract takes on film and all of that, and I'm generally skeptical of them as being an aid to understanding. I think a lot of film theoretic academic writing is like you take a academic who maybe has a slightly Marxist slant, and they write some stuff about how L’Argent expresses, the idea of Marxism, whatever. It doesn't really help you understand it. They're just trying to publish a paper.

I think most of the books on that list that I posted are not film theory. They're more like interviews with practitioners or directors. The first one was Cassavetes on Cassavetes, which is just a series of long interviews with John Cassavetes about how and why he makes movies. It's just him ranting about how terrible most movies are and what's important in art and things like that and how the ancient Greeks influenced him.

I think that's really interesting. I think more generally, good criticism does deepen your appreciation of stuff. You've probably had this experience where you've watched a movie, you felt there was something great there. It moved you, but you couldn't really explain why. I think a really good critic, you can read, and they will tell you maybe a bit more about why you felt that way.

[00:24:05] Dan: Do you think a deep understanding of the arts or everything we've just been talking about, someone who's really into film but also maybe literature, music, et cetera, would this make people better founders or leaders, or do you view this as just like another side hobby?

[00:24:16] Nabeel: [chuckles] I think there's no correlation basically. I think there's a bunch of effects that work in opposite ways, and these net out to such that it's not an important predictor. What I mean by that is, you could say, "Well, if someone's really into literature and film and the arts and so on, then they're not going to be a good founder because the best founders are monomaniacs, they're obsessed with one thing, they don't care about anything else. If there's somebody who's going to the theater all the time, how much are they really dedicated to building their company?

That's valid. I think a lot of the best people I've seen at a given thing are very narrowly into that thing and not into anything else. On the other hand, somebody who's good at those things, and I think this is someone like Tyler Cowen's investment thesis with Emergent Ventures. I think he does fund a lot of these people who, is that those people are good at cracking cultural codes, which is a Tylerism, and that is a skill that can be very helpful in certain contexts. For example, I think if you're doing something like enterprise sales, it can actually be really handy to be able to speak the customer's language, especially if it's in a domain area that you're not super familiar with.

Various times in my career, I've had to go into a new industry that I didn't know so well. One example is I spent a year working in an airplane factory at Airbus, and I don't have an aeronautical engineering background. I think if you're the kind of person who's good at cracking these codes very quickly, you can learn to speak the customer's language very fast, and that helps you be successful in that domain. These two effects work in opposite ways. I don't think it nets out to anything super significant, but I'm always interested in that question.

[00:25:58] Dan: Yes. You've mentioned before that you went from being the type of person who says, "Hey, I'm going to go read 52 books a year." You're tallying them up to saying, "Hey, I'm going to read 1 or 2 books, spend as much time as I need with it. Maybe read a lot of secondary literature on it." What are some books that you feel like you've been rewarded for doing a super careful reading on?

[00:26:18] Nabeel: Yes. It's ironic with that one because I've actually gone back the other way, and I'm going for over 100 books this year. I think there's a periodicity element here. I think there's times in your life where you just have to take four to six weeks and just hunker down with a divine comedy and go through it slowly and read a bunch of secondary literature. Then there's times when you need to read four novels and four nonfiction books a week and just see what's out there. I think I just cycled through phases. A few books in my life that I've done this with, so the Iliad was one. I did that last year.

When I was a teenager, I did this with Ulysses actually. I read all the chapters, and then there's a couple of really good readers guides to Ulysses that people have written where they explain all the references. You need them because Ulysses is very, very willfully obscure, and he doesn't explain anything. Unless a lot about, 19th, 20th century Dublin, it's going to be very hard to understand. Yes, Iliad, Ulysses, I think authors like Dante, Shakespeare, they all reward this. I think one of the more important things in life, if you're into things like literature is going really, really deep into a few of the great works and getting that super deep understanding of them.

[00:27:32] Dan: How do you do this in practice? How do you know when you've gone deep enough?

[00:27:36] Nabeel: Yes, I think the ideal way to do it is to read it once and read it fairly quickly if you can and then take a while to write out your thoughts and stuff that stuck with you. Look up things along the way if you want, but don't let it slow you down too much. A mistake I see people making is, they need to understand every single reference. They're reading a Shakespeare play. Every line has five annotations. They're like, "Oh, I need to look up what bodkin means," or whatever. It doesn't really matter.

Just read it fast and then take the list of things you did. Then with that as a lens, go through some of the secondary literature that you find. The way to find that secondary literature, I think it builds up your expertise on this over time, but it's like, take some authors that you trust or take a book that you trust and then look up the bibliography and what books they reference a lot and follow that chain recursively.

Go dive into the secondary literature, see some of the things that the critics are talking about, assess whether you agree or disagree with them. Then ideally you write your own piece or essay on the book or whatever it is. Then I think you go back and read it a second time with all of that knowledge. That is the richest reading. The best thing about these great works is that you get increasing returns. Every time you read them, you gain more from that. It's a lifelong thing. Every time is really fun.

[00:28:58] Dan: Yes. One thing I always think about with these is like, it's like a positive feedback loop for making them great. Because if a great book has a bunch of secondary literature, and it's going to be more interesting to go really deep into, and then it's going to get more secondary literature. You can just keep going.

[00:29:12] Nabeel: Yes. Although I guess this process can go too far sometimes. Sometimes there's just too much secondary literature on something.

[00:29:19] Dan: Yes, or garbage secondary literature.

[00:29:20] Nabeel: Exactly, yes.

[00:29:22] Dan: You did this with the Iliad. How has your interpretation of that book changed over time?

[00:29:27] Nabeel: Yes, I think it's less about having an interpretation and more about deepening your appreciation of certain parts. For example, I think knowing how the structure of that era of Greek society worked can be helpful in understanding. There's a really poignant scene where Hector says goodbye to his wife, Andromache, and he says goodbye to his baby before going into battle.

I think just reading a little bit about how society was structured and what was expected of men at the time, there's these famous sayings about how men's mothers would say, "Go to battle and either win or come back dead on your shield." The role of honor and things like that, understanding how that works is actually really helpful context. Then there's other sequences that I think first-time readers find very mystifying about the Iliad.

Two examples are, there's this long sequence where they make a shield for Achilles and Homer spends pages and pages describing this. That's one of them. Then the second one is the catalog of the ships, which I think is pretty early on. I think it's the second or third book of the Iliad, and Homer just spends the whole time being like, "And then this ship came, and then this family was on it." It's pages and pages, and you're like, "What is going on here?"

I think when you read the secondary literature, you gain more appreciation for why these scenes exist and what makes them special. I think it's a mistake to have too much of a take or an interpretation of a book. I think it's helpful to have multiple interpretations and then hold them in your head at the same time. One other thing I want to mention on this is Simone Weil, the French philosopher. She wrote a really brilliant essay called The Iliad, Or, The Poem of Force, which I think everyone should read, even if they haven't read the Iliad.

It's just such a genius example of criticism and how criticism can deepen your appreciation of a book. Her take is that the Iliad is all about the tragic effects of force. She refers to force as just compulsion. It's this very rich word in and of itself, but for her, force is a sword driving through somebody's skull. It's this impersonal thing that doesn't care who you are, what your past is, who you loved. It just crushes you.

For her, the Iliad is all about how force just steamrolls everybody, and nobody wins in the end. She examines the ending scene where the two sides reconcile, and there's a funeral pyre for Hector, and you're like, "What is the point of all this?" She links it to her conception of the Greeks and Christianity in this very brilliant way. I found that very rich, even though I think it's a mistake to take that interpretation and be like, "This is the only one of the Iliad."

[00:32:14] Dan: Yes. Okay, okay. Great, great. Okay. Tolstoy, he surprisingly said this, and I think you've tweeted this before, and he's quoting about Shakespeare's works. He said, he felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless. What is he missing?

[00:32:44] Nabeel: [chuckles] Tolstoy has this great essay on Shakespeare, and he basically says, "I don't get it. This guy's a scam. Everybody's insane. Shakespeare is bad." Then he goes through Hamlet and Macbeth, and he's like, "This is bad. This makes no sense. This part of the plot is stupid. Why does Hamlet take so long?" Yes, I think he completely didn't get it. I think it's because he had an incorrect view of art.

His view of art was that art has this moral purpose. It should teach you what is right, what is good. This is in his when he had a full conversion to Christianity and after that. He'd written War and Peace. He'd written Anna Karenina. He'd written these complex novels that to this day are the greatest example of novels that exist in the canon. Ironically, he then wrote a lot of, I would say, inferior art based on his theory of what art should be.

His take was, art should teach you the moral good. I'm going to write a bunch of parables about how there was this old man, and nobody liked him, and then somebody helped him. This is an example of Christian charity. It's like, they're nice parables, but everyone reads Anna Karenina, not the parables. I think his theory of art was wrong. Then this is the reason why Shakespeare robbed him the wrong way, is because you don't read a Shakespeare play and go, "This is how I should live my life."

You read a Shakespeare play and go, "This is shocking. People are getting stabbed in the eye. There's this fool spouting nonsense, poetry. What is happening?" It's pretty much the opposite of his theory, but I think his theory was just incorrect.

[00:34:12] Dan: Got it. Got it. Let's talk a little bit about Shakespeare. A few questions on the Henriad. Was Henry IV wrong to focus so much on Hal's relationship with Falstaff?

[00:34:22] Nabeel: Yes. I think the core of the play or part of the core of the play in some ways is the compromises you have to make in order to get into power. For everyone's context, Hal is the person who ends up becoming King Henry V, but in the Henry IV plays, he is Prince Hal. He's this wayward. He's going to be the successor to the throne eventually, but for now, he's enjoying getting drunk with all these miscreants and interesting unsavory characters in London.

One of them is Falstaff, who's this drunk, good for nothing but very eloquent, very fun guy. I think a huge part of the dramatic arc of the Henriad is Hal going into power and then spurning Falstaff. Shakespeare does this thing where you think Hal and Falstaff are good friends, and then Hal has this monologue where he's actually, I'm just making everyone think I'm really dissolute because then they'll see that I reform myself, and I become a king. Then you're like, "Wow, Hal's very Machiavellian. He's very manipulative." Then there's this famous scene where Hal becomes crowned Henry V, and Falstaff goes up to him, and he's like, "Hey, Hal, remember me, Falstaff?"

Hal's like, "I don't know who you are." He says, "I know thee not, old man." It's just really cruel rejection. Yes. I think this was part of Shakespeare's purpose in writing these plays is who you are when you're in power is necessarily not who you are in your private life. These two selves can be very far apart. You almost have to be manipulative in order to gain power and keep power. I think that's a lot of what he wanted to show with the Henriad.

[00:36:04] Dan: Do you think that Hal made a mistake rejecting him?

[00:36:07] Nabeel: No, I didn't think so. I think it was absolutely the right move. You can see the reaction from all the nobles around. They're a little bit nervous about Hal getting into power, and Hal's very smart about how he does this. He basically reassures them, "You were all friends with my dad. It's not like I'm going to kick you all out now. Actually, I'm very much going to continue the program. Falstaff is seen as this element of chaos within the fabric of England at the time. I think he had to reject Falstaff in order to assure his rule and assure that he was going to be a good ruler. Now, is it sad? Yes, I think it's sad, but he had to do what he had to do.

[00:36:44] Dan: Yes. Orson Welles did a movie on this called The Chimes at Midnight. He's sort of obsessed with this idea where he says the central theme of Western culture is the lost paradise. You even see this today, right? The old times were better, but this has been going on in his view since the beginning of time, looking back at the old days. One thing that his interpretation was essentially that Falstaff's rejection symbolized the transition from the utopian area of merry England to this more cold, calculating, industrial revolution. Do you give any weight to that, or do you think he's missing something there?

[00:37:17] Nabeel: I don't buy that at all. There's this view that, yes, life is getting worse at every stage. I think that just ignores a lot of the misery that existed before the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution caused a lot of good things to happen. People were happier as a result. I think if you have this mistaken view of things, then yes, that makes logical sense. Once you correct that, then I don't see it.

[00:37:42] Dan: What are the best Shakespeare sonnets?

[00:37:44] Nabeel: Ooh, wow. That's a good question. I think all the famous ones are really good. I don't think there's any that are super neglected necessarily. I really like the Sonnet 16, which has this really famous quatrain where the first line is, so should the lines of life that life repair. This is a quatrain that works at 10 different levels. You can literally give 10 different glosses of what this quatrain means, and it's endlessly rich.

The literary critic William Empson, who I'm a big fan of, has this famous chapter where he just analyzes this and how ambiguous it is. I think Sonnet 16 is a really good one. The sonnets are great insofar as the famous ones are just really good. There's the one that is always recited at weddings, which I think is 116, let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. It's a really good one as well. The way he uses all these nautical metaphors in it is really rich. You can't go wrong with Shakespeare.

[00:38:46] Dan: Do you have any recommendations for secondary literature on Shakespeare?

[00:38:48] Nabeel: Yes, I do. William Empson, who I mentioned already, Seven Types of Ambiguity, has a lot of good analyses of Shakespeare's sonnets and poetry. Then there's this critic called Stephen Booth. He's very obscure. He was at UC Berkeley for a long time. He published an edition of Shakespeare's sonnets that I'm obsessed with. It's one where the sonnets are a thin slice of it, and then the footnotes are 500 pages.

His introduction to those sonnets is incredible because he has this whole theory, which he I think partially got from Empson, about how ambiguity and illegibility are key to poetry and what makes poetry good, which I have an essay coming up on actually. I think Stephen Booth's another one. Then I enjoyed a book recently called The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum, who's a journalist. It's a kooky book. He's clearly a little bit nuts, but he just goes to a lot of Shakespeare events. He interviews a lot of Shakespeare critics. It's about a lot of disparate questions.

There's the authorship question, there's the question of which performances of Shakespeare were the best. He, as a very passionate fan, just interviews a bunch of people about it. I would highly recommend that as well.

[00:40:06] Dan: Are there any passages from Shakespeare that you have memorized? What makes them stick?

[00:40:10] Nabeel: There are tons. I think one of the great things about Shakespeare is when you read him, you just get these snatches of the English language stuck in your mind, and you can't really explain why. Ever since I read it in high school, I always think about that Macbeth speech, which has tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in his petty base to the last syllable of recorded time, et cetera.

I couldn't tell you why really. It's a little bit miserable, but I think there's something magical about Shakespeare's language in that way. There's a lot of Hamlet that's really stuck with me. Even just at the very beginning of the play, they're waiting around, and it's really cold. I think it's one of the guards who just randomly says, "'Tis bitter cold, and I'm sick at heart." You're like, "Why does he say that?" Shakespeare never explains it. I always think about that. What was going on with that guard?

[00:41:06] Dan: Yes. I'm not sure if this is a tech or literature question anymore, but is Rene Girard overrated or underrated?

[00:41:14] Nabeel: [laughs] I think he is a little overrated in tech for me now. When Peter Thiel brought him to prominence in the tech world, I think he was very underrated. I do think he has a lot of very powerful philosophical frameworks that you can use to analyze literature and life. Mimesis, mimetic desire and all these things are important ideas. I don't think he explained all of human life in the way that he wants to have done though.

I don't think mimesis is a good account of how people come to desire things actually. I think it is true that some people have some mimetic desires some of the time, but there is also such a thing as what you truly want. I don't know how Girard really fits that into his framework. Then it's just a little bit suspicious for me that he is raised Catholic, French, and then his entire philosophical theory is about how Christianity is the one religion that explains everything, and it's the culmination of all religions.

I think that should make you a little bit suspicious, which is not to dis-Christianity obviously, but it just feels like very biased reasoning. He has this great theory about it and why other religions don't celebrate the victim as much, and then Christianity is the one religion that makes the victim the center of it. I think that's very interesting to think about. He makes these very sweeping claims to explain all of history via the scapegoating mechanism and things like that. I think they do apply to some scenarios, but there's a lot of life that doesn't fit into his frameworks.

[00:42:48] Dan: What was your biggest takeaway from Norman Rush's Mating?

[00:42:51] Nabeel: [laughs] Mating was a very entertaining book. It's set in Botswana. It has this very erudite, very autistic female narrator who is a PhD student in anthropology, and she falls in love with this crazy guy called Nelson Denoon, who's trying to set up this mega project. He's trying to build his own city in the middle of nowhere in Botswana. He's trying not to run it. It's this matriarchy basically that's collectively governed, and he's very much trying to be the founder who founds it and then leaves. If that pitch alone didn't make you want to read the book, I don't know what will.

He writes this character is very, very obsessive and analytical about human relationships. She tries to dissect her relationship to Nelson and his relationship to his ex-wife and all these things in these very analytical ways. I think it will resonate a lot with people who felt like they had to do that. I think when I was a teenager, I was pretty socially awkward. Then I felt like I had to reverse engineer how human interaction worked a little bit.

Because I was always more into computers than people initially. I had to really just be like, "Okay, how does small talk work? When people talk on the phone, what are they talking about?" These were not obvious to me. I had to develop almost explicit theories of them. I think if you're that brain, if you're very analytical about human relationships, you should definitely read Mating.

[00:44:17] Dan: Why should listeners read Watership Down?

[00:44:20] Nabeel: Watership Down is a beautiful book. I think it came out of nowhere. The author is, this guy who just lives in this village in England. I didn't even know what the title meant. I thought it was about naval combat or something, but it's actually down as in there's a region of England called the South Downs and the down is-- I'm not even sure what it means, but it's a part of the countryside.

Watership Down is a particular place, and it's about rabbits. That initially put me off as well, but then I just started reading, and I was swept up in it. It's one of the big myths of the 20th century, actually. It's up there with Lord of the Rings for me and the His Dark Materials trilogy. It's this mythical story about the founding of societies as told through this warren of rabbits.

It's also a story about existential risk, actually.


[00:45:10] Nabeel: Which I wasn't expecting. I won't spoil the plot, but the very beginning of it, you have this rabbit who's a run, and he has these prophetic powers. I think his brother takes him very seriously, but a lot of other rabbits don't. He basically says, "Something bad is coming, and we have to get out now. Otherwise, we're all going to die." They take this to the chief rabbit, and the chief rabbit just laughs at them.

Then he's like, "Never show your face to me again. I don't take you seriously at all." These two rabbits escape. They take a few true believers with them and then try and found a new city. That's the premise of the book. It's very relevant because you're like, "How would I have reacted in this scenario? This like guy with prophetic powers is claiming that everything's going to come tumbling down." I feel like we're all talking about, existential risks from AI now and things like this. It's actually quite resonant to those concerns.

[00:46:04] Dan: You alluded to this earlier, but so Harold Bloom has this idea where he thinks that strangeness is the central thing to a work of art that makes it really, really great. Do you agree with this?

[00:46:13] Nabeel: Yes, I do. I'm not a huge Bloom fan, but I think that's one of his more powerful observations. I've had this myself. It comes back to what I was saying before about art being defamiliarizing. I think art is about you typically interpret the world through these categories, these abstractions that you just live your day-to-day life with on autopilot. I think art forces you to shake these up a little bit and perceive things in a strange way.

Naturally, it makes sense that a lot of the great works of art are just a little bit weird. I think Paul Graham has this old essay of his where he talks about this as well, actually. I think it's Six Characteristics of Great Design or something like that. He goes through a bunch of examples of design that he likes. The original Porsche 911, I think is one of them. In each of them, he says that strangeness or weirdness is actually a characteristic of them. I think it's just, there's something a little bit funny about these things at first. There's something a bit weird about Shakespeare the first time you read it. It's deeply strange.

I think this is true of pretty much any good work of art you care to name. I think it's just because they force you to grasp things in this unfamiliar way. I think if a work of fiction or a work of art goes down too easy, or it's too legible, you should be very suspicious of it. You see these screenshots of poetry that go viral on places like Twitter or Instagram, and they're usually very easy. They have this conclusion that's a little bit moving or whatever. I think these are usually examples of bad art because they just give you this very simple emotion. Yes, I think the illegibility piece is very important.

[00:47:54] Dan: What do you think makes for a really good sci-fi? Does it have different rules than other literature? Is it just good literature with science dripped on top?

[00:48:04] Nabeel: That's a really good question. I don't think I have a developed theory of this, but some of the sci-fi I really appreciate is I really like Vernor Vinge. He wrote A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky, and Rainbow's End and a few other books.

I think what makes sci-fi and his work so great is that they're written for highly intelligent people. They don't dumb things down. Another author I like along these dimensions is Greg Egan. I think he's an Australian mathematician. It's a similar thing. There's a lot of these rich ideas that came out of the 20th century. Physics, computer science, information theory, all of these things that just don't make it into literary fiction at all.

That's a limitation of literary fiction. I think really good sci-fi can take what is great about literary fiction and art in general but weave in these ideas from physics and CS in a way that is really stimulating. Someone who's clearly very great at this is Ted Chiang. I think things like Stories of Your Life and Others plays with-- I think it was the Sapir Whorf hypothesis about language. It's wrapped in this very moving story that works as art on its own way.

[00:49:17] Dan: He's very Borges, I find. He's basically like sci-fi Borges.

[00:49:21] Nabeel: Yes, I agree.

[00:49:23] Dan: Are there any authors out there that you feel you've never been able to get similar to the question of film?

[00:49:28] Nabeel: Yes. Gustave Flaubert is a good example. I really couldn't get on with Madame Bovary at all. I just found it dehumanized its protagonist. It's probably a translation thing. People say it's like the foundation of the modern novel. I've always been mystified by this claim, but the critic James Woods will argue this, for example. I think a lot of it is like, it's because the language is very precise, and he's very, very clear about what he's describing. Nabokov is a huge Flaubert fan. He thinks Madame Bovary is one of the best novels ever written. I think it's notable, Nabokov was fluent in French. Maybe there's something about it that I'm not getting in translation. When I read it, I was just like, "This is so tedious. The author just doesn't seem to like Bovary very much. None of the characters are very compelling or sympathetic to me." I do appreciate the precision of the descriptions. Overall, I found it a little bit boring.

[00:50:26] Dan: We got into this earlier when we were talking about the Orson Welles theory of idolizing the past. You hinted at your views are much more, "Hey, Industrial Revolution, obviously great in so many ways. The past is cold and brutal." Now, there are some nuances on this. There's a couple of writers, some that you said you've read recently. Ivan Illich, Neil Postman, they have this flavor of what I'll call Brave New World, Infinite Jest has some of this, Ted Kaczynski even.

Really, like what they're commenting on, I view is sort of like two things. One, it's our overreliance on technology. Then two, it's just being addicted to entertainment, as negatives of technology. Actually, you could even view this as a more recent phenomenon in the 1900 when we had like washing machines and air conditioners coming in. We weren't so worried about people being addicted to VR or something. I'm curious, do you think that any of the folks I just mentioned, maybe specifically Ivan Illich or Neil Postman make valid points?

[00:51:19] Nabeel: Yes. I think they both they both make valid points. I tend to be optimistic on these questions. I think both of them skew pessimistic, I would say, but I think we can learn a lot from their critiques. Illich wrote this book, Tools for Conviviality, which inspired a lot of ideas in open-source. His entire thing was that the tools that we use should be serving your creative purposes, they should be modifiable, they shouldn't be trying to manipulate you or do things that make you a consumer, basically.

I think that that's a really valuable lens to view technology through. When you look at things like the Vision Pro, I think it does have both sides to it, where it can be a powerful tool for producers eventually. For example, if you watch someone playing piano with it, it's pretty cool. There's also a way in which these things are quite dark. It does take you towards this Wall-E vision of the world where everyone's overweight, and they're drinking their soft drink, and they have these glasses strapped to their heads, and they're just imbibing entertainment constantly.

I do feel like that vision lives in me as well as a warning of how technology should not go. In reality, it's like, I think what happens is you put these tools in front of people, and then they use them as they want. I think this is the flaw in Illich's work is like, not everyone is actually that motivated to be a creative programming genius and using it in these boundary-defying ways. Actually, a lot of people do just want to consume, and that's why Netflix is a major public company. I don't watch a ton of Netflix myself, but there's clearly an audience for that stuff.

I do think these tools do have to serve everyone. I think a lot of people do have an unhealthy relationship to their phones. Although I do skew optimistic here, I think people adapt over time. Meanwhile, I think there's some growing pains.

[00:53:17] Dan: Yes, you had a tweet that I loved a little while ago. I think this was you, and you said, if someone were to go back in the past into 1990, and say this warning about how to handle your phone, this is a real warning. It's for kids or something, it says, "If you're feeling tempted to look at it, try this strategy, put it down, and just count to 10, and don't look at it."

If you didn't know what a phone was, and you saw that this was a warning that people needed to read to not stare at the thing, you'd be like, what did we create? This is like a crystal ball or something. It's a little weird, and stuff moves fast.

[00:53:49] Nabeel: I thought that was crazy. I just had this sudden moment of like, "What are we doing? We've made something so hypnotic." We both have friends who are very optimistic about technology. You can't tell me it's not a little bit creepy to watch like a six-year-old scrolling TikTok for two or three hours. I've seen that. There is something off about it. Where it's like, they haven't developed their own creative purpose yet, necessarily. This content is just so engaging. I do want people to put tools in front of kids that help them express themselves and make them more capable human beings, not just sitting there and watching engaging stuff.

[00:54:31] Dan: Michael Nielsen wrote, "I find probabilistic language models surprisingly irritating in some ways. Surely a big part of thinking is to create meaning by finding ways of violating expectations. The language models can seem instead like ways of rapidly generating nearly content-free cliches, not expectation-violating meaning."

You note here that this is getting at the limits of what LLMs are for creating something truly original, like Shakespeare's plays or general relativity. My question to you is, will LLMs be able to give us answers to the big questions?

[00:55:01] Nabeel: [chuckles] I think this is a really stimulating comment by Michael Nielsen. I feel like there's two stories that come to mind, which when I when I read this immediately. One is, there was a poetry teacher who used to teach poetry by, he would give his class a poem by Philip Larkin, the English poet. There's a line in this Larkin poem, which goes, "A hothouse flashed uniquely." It's this beautiful line, it's very unexpected.

What he did was he would blank out certain words. He would blank out the word uniquely. He would say to his class, "All right, you have this line, a hothouse flashed X, and X is an adverb. What adverb would you put?" He said, he taught this class for 25 years, and nobody ever came up with 'uniquely'. I thought that was such a good point about the value of poetry. You could do this with Shakespeare, too, like nobody's ever going to write "the multitudinous seas incarnadine," from Macbeth. That's just such a strange line. You would never come up with 'incarnadine'.

Yes, I think it's critical to things like poetry that you come up with the most unexpected word, but not literally the most unexpected word. You wouldn't put 'shrimp' right in there. That wouldn't make any sense. I think that's one thing to think about. I think that's what Michael's getting at is like, the best stuff often surprises you.

[00:56:19] Dan: This gets to the strangeness in some ways too.

[00:56:22] Nabeel: Exactly. Then the other story quickly is Christopher Alexander, the architect who writes a lot about beauty and art. He tells a story about-- I'll dig up the reference, but he has this painting, basically, and it's this old Italian renaissance painting. There's a character and they're collapsing next to a door, I think, and an angel is consoling them. It's got these normal colors in it. There's red and blue and white. Then there's this very incongruous stripe of black in the painting.

It doesn't quite make sense. What he asks you to do in his book is he asks you to cover up the black stripe. Then he asks you to notice how you feel. The point is that without the black stripe, the painting is nowhere near as powerful. Then he says, "Well, if you imagine you were looking at this painting as it is, would you have thought to paint a black stripe across the painting?" The answer is no. It's very jarring. I think that's such a brilliant observation. Again, it's just like the hothouse thing. It's like the greatest art is weird.

I think to your question, the LLMs, they're going to get very, very good. They're going to be very, very helpful. They're clearly being deployed right now and things like workflow automation, but they're not that good writers yet. I'm not saying they can't be. It does feel like there needs to be some other element there that is they're actually thinking about what the best word would be in this context, not just what is one of the more probable tokens.

[00:57:50] Dan: Yes. What did you learn from Peter Hacker?

[00:57:54] Nabeel: Peter Hacker was a professor of mine at Oxford. He taught me the later philosophy of Wittgenstein. Honestly, it's a little hard to summarize, he was just very, very, very about close reading the text. I think he was very opposed to certain philosophers like Kripke, who took Wittgenstein and then very much took it in their own way.

As an example, Wittgenstein has this whole section of the philosophical investigations where he talks about rule-following. He examines this philosophical issue of basically, imagine you just saw a game, take chess, say two people playing chess, you don't know the rules of chess. How can you infer the rules of chess from these two players playing a game? This is actually very relevant to modern AI, incidentally.

Some philosophers actually misinterpret Wittgenstein here in Hacker's view, which is, they think that what he's saying is, you can never figure out what the rules of the game are from this, because there's an infinity of rules that are compatible with what you're seeing. Hacker says, "No, this is nonsense. This is not what Wittgenstein was actually saying."

Learning to read Wittgenstein was the thing I took away from him. Wittgenstein writes in this very aphoristic way where you really don't get what he's trying to say sometimes. He'll tell a story that's this schematic thought experiment. He might throw one line at the end that's like, "Should we conclude X from this?" You're confused. You're like, "Okay, is he saying we should conclude X from this? We shouldn't conclude X from this? Is he being sarcastic?"

He'll make a joke remark, and then he'll switch to a completely different topic. You'll be like, "What was he actually saying here?" There's this value in having mentors for a lot of things like this, where it's hard to make your way on your own. I think just being a mentor and learning how to make sense of Wittgenstein was immensely valuable.

[00:59:48] Dan: What attracts you to later Wittgenstein's work over his earlier? He's like one of these famous people who did a 180 at one point in his career. Why do you like the later Wittgenstein?

[00:59:57] Nabeel: Yes, this is a rich question. I think there's a few reasons. First of all, I think his earlier work was just wrong and he realized that and then he just did a 180 and he wrote, "Why is my earlier work wrong?" I think the most banal answer is that his later work is more correct. I actually think he got some things fundamentally right. That's one.

I think two is like, he basically realized the value of the illegible in human affairs. I think his early work, it's very much the vibe is like, it's logical positivism. It's like all of human language can be reduced to these atomic propositions and everything is this neat logical structure and you can build it all up from there. He realized that breaks. A lot of his later work and especially his diaries, he has this book called Culture and Value, which is mostly taken from his notebooks, but it's about things like culture, music, religion, Shakespeare, all these things. I think you'd like it.

He has these really stimulating remarks on religion and Christianity. He was this tortured Christian where he couldn't quite bring himself to believe in the straightforward way that a Christian would, but he was obsessed with Jesus and the New Testament and the religion. He had these really interesting theories of how religion actually works, which is that it's not just about an explicit set of things that you believe. It's not reducible to a list of propositions. A lot of it is about the practice and the doing and the things you can't really express in language. I think that's very important. Illegibility is constantly underrated, especially by people who work in abstractions day to day. Actually, a lot of the most important parts of life are illegible.

[01:01:38] Dan: What does Derek Parfit get wrong?

[01:01:40] Nabeel: Parfit, I think he was a brilliant philosopher. He came up with a lot of really interesting ideas. I think he was mostly correct about personal identity, which is essentially through analytic philosophy, he derives this Buddhist view of personal identity. He says that my relation to my younger self is actually not categorically different to, let's say, my relationship to you. Maybe I'm closer to my younger self, but you can think of these as almost like three distinct people. I think that's very interesting.

I think his fundamental project was misguided though. He wrote this whole tome, which the point of it was basically that the three main ethical theories, so this is utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, they're all climbing the same mountain, but from different sides, but they're all trying to say the same thing. He spent pages and pages trying to prove this. I don't think he was successful. I think he got that wrong.

I think there are just are cases where utilitarianism gives you conflicting intuitions to virtue ethics and conflicting intuitions to deontology. These ethical conflicts are real. I don't think that you can reduce them all to the one true ethical theory. I think that's what a lot of his work, as I understand it, was trying to get at.

He made one interesting remark at one point where he said that the-- there's another English philosopher called Bernard Williams, and he said that Bernard Williams was his most interesting philosophical contemporary. Williams was very, very different to him. His whole thing is about the limits of ethics and how ethics actually can't tell you very much about the important decisions in your life.

Williams goes into a lot of like ancient Greek ethics. He's obsessed with Homer and things like that because he thinks that those traditions and the traditions in fiction are a lot richer than the theories that philosophers have come up with. I think that's a better take because Parfit very much worked within the strictures of utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics. I think life is just bigger than that.

[01:03:45] Dan: From your perspective, the average person, they're not thinking in terms of utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics. How well-calibrated just do you think the average person on the streets moral intuition is?

[01:03:57] Nabeel: [laughs] That's a big question. I am an intuitionist actually. I basically think that you have to stand on intuition in order to do any moral reasoning at all, which is to say when you're presented with the trolley problem or an ethical thought experiment, what do you do? You test out various answers against your inner compass, your conscience, your intuition, whatever.

I think that if you accept that, then you are an intuitionist. In that sense, I think that people have this moral intuition now. Does everybody have it to the same degree? No. I do think there is such a thing as trying to be a better person and a lot of the people I admire the most are very serious about trying to be a better person, but the trying to be a better person is always sort of by your own lights, if that makes sense, rather than through some external ethical theory. One way you could express it is, "Am I making my 13-year-old self proud of me?" I think that's a very powerful way to view it.

[01:05:03] Dan: Do EAs make good CEOs or founders?

[01:05:06] Nabeel: [laughs] I think generally no, [laughs] which isn't to say that they can't. There are examples of very good EA CEOs and founders. Holden Karnofsky is clearly brilliant. He founded GiveWell. It was a very misunderstood idea and most people didn't get it. Now it drives hundreds of millions of dollars of donations to neglected causes. I think that's an amazing achievement.

I do think with that being said, EA tends to attract a lot of people who are very idealistic, very philosophical, very abstract. They like to think about things in abstract ways. The meme that I've observed is a lot of nonprofits that are full of EAs tend to just, write Google Docs about important topics. They're like, "I'm going to figure out AIX risk. Let me open a Google Doc." Then they just write 20,000 words and then they feel like they figured out AIX risk.

The world is just a lot more complicated and I think you have to go out and do things and operate. They tend to neglect the knowledge that you get from real operational experience and overvalue the knowledge that you can get from philosophical reasoning. I think that's one piece. I think that what does help them a lot is EAs are very mission-oriented. They're very driven to do good by what they view as good in the world. That is something that a good founder needs.

There are a lot of really admirable EA organizations that exist. Even aside from GiveWell, there's one that is aiming to cure lead poisoning among children in the world. Super admirable. The founder seems very formidable. I think her name's Lucia Coulter. There are good EA's founders, but I think if someone comes to me, they're in their early 20s and their primary identity is I'm an EA, it tends to be that they think way too abstractly about stuff and they just need to get a job for a couple of years and learn how to do things. Then they'll realize that it's a lot. A lot of these things are a lot harder and trickier than they maybe gave it credit for.

[01:07:11] Dan: You've talked before about how selfishness might be an under-discussed trait of genius. Miyazaki, I think, was noted, I don't know if it was one of his autobiographies or if someone said this about him, but he was noted for being a little bit selfish. Can selfishness be good in any way?

[01:07:25] Nabeel: Yes. It's just one of those things. What it is selfishness correlates with being very driven to the purpose that you have and not letting anything get in your way. It is very possible to be like that while not being selfish. Someone I admire a lot is Paul Graham, for example. He founded YC. He invented the web application, practically. He's written his own programming languages. He's written a lot of very influential essays. I think his essays changed my life. They made me go into startups.

I admire him a lot. He seems like a very not-selfish person. He has a family he loves. He helps founders all the time. I don't think selfishness is necessary to be achieving big outcomes. It does seem to correlate a lot with some artists that we otherwise admire. Ingmar Bergman, Picasso, horrible person. Miyazaki is a good example. His son absolutely hated him and just thought he was the worst father. His take was just, he's a genius animator and he's the worst father on earth.

I'll give you a couple of examples for color. One is that his wife had her own vibrant career as, I think she was an animator. I could be wrong. She was very senior, basically. He basically just said to her, "Look, I need to focus on Ghibli, so I need you to quit your job and take care of the kid full-time." She was very unhappy, but he basically insisted and she did it. She was miserable as a result, I think. He didn't care. He just worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, and neglected everything else. I think he knows that he wasn't a good father.

Another example is his son, Goro, made a movie and his dad attended the screening. Then about 20 minutes in, Miyazaki pretty ostentatiously walked out of the movie and he spent the rest of the time just smoking outside and not watching it. When Goro asked him why, he just said, "I don't think it's very good." Can you imagine your dad doing that to you? [laughs] There was clearly something messed up in his head, but on the other hand, he made these brilliant movies. It does seem to correlate. There are many, many other stories like this, but I don't think it's necessary.

[01:09:33] Dan: Let's talk about music. Do you have any favorite albums of the last 10 years?

[01:09:38] Nabeel: Yes. I'm afraid they're mostly cliches, but I think I really like Blonde by Frank Ocean. I really like Lana Del Rey. I think one musician I really admire is Nicholas Jaar. If you watch his-- I think he has a Boiler Room set that is one of the greatest things I've ever seen. He's essentially semi-improvising at the various electronic instruments. That, to me, is a new kind of music that wasn't possible before. It was pretty genius. Yes, I guess I'd say Nicholas Jaar, but otherwise my tastes in contemporary music are pretty normal.

[01:10:17] Dan: All right. You've tweeted before about Beethoven's string quartet number 14, and you said it's just like the greatest ever. What do you love about it?

[01:10:24] Nabeel: [laughs] Just listen to it. You got to listen to it. 13 to 16, I think are the really great ones for Beethoven. 16 was his last one. He was practically deaf, I believe, when he wrote them. He just does things musically in these that should be impossible. He'll do like a 14-minute fugue, but with a string quartet and it will work. Not only will it work, it will be extremely moving.

I think he was just operating at the edge of what is expressible in music somehow. You listen to this and you get the sense that music is ending somehow. [chuckles] It's almost breaking apart. You get this similar sense when you read something like The Wasteland by TS Eliot, where you feel like he's pushing poetry to its absolute limits. That's what Beethoven's late quartets feel like to me.

[01:11:17] Dan: Great. Great. What's your view on re-imagined or modernized versions of either classical music concerts, opera, Shakespeare, et cetera? Do you think this is a good thing or do you prefer it just to be how it was for the last 100, 200 years?

[01:11:32] Nabeel: [chuckles] I'm all for experimentation. I think a lot of the examples I've seen concretely of modern adaptations of Shakespeare, where they try and recast it, have not been good. An example would be they'll take, something like Antony and Cleopatra and instead of setting it in ancient Rome or ancient Egypt, they'll set it in Weimar, Germany, or something like that.

I find they tend not to work well because usually the director's more interested in making a political point than they are in making good Shakespeare. Often it's with this limited contemporary understanding of politics. They'll use it to make a point about, I don't know, Donald Trump or something. It's just not really what you want to see when you're going to see Shakespeare. I feel like you want to focus on the art.

I think these things tend to distract. A good counter-example again is the Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet, which I think is set in modern America and it's really good. It is possible.

[01:12:28] Dan: Let's talk about New York City. Is it overrated or underrated?

[01:12:31] Nabeel: [laughs] I think New York City is great. I love New York City. I don't have a strong take either way, I think it's correctly rated. It is one of the top cities in the world. I will say after traveling around a lot, I took six months to travel last year, there's a lot of, deficiencies of New York City are more visible to me maybe. The subway being maybe not as clean as other cities, things like that. It's a very rich playground for almost anything that you want to do. It's a good place to live.

[01:13:09] Dan: What's the most underrated thing to do in New York?

[01:13:12] Nabeel: [laughs] I like going to Washington Square Park and playing chess with the hustlers. I think more people should try that if you just know the rules of chess. The reason is they're very colorful characters. They've often been there for decades. They can just tell you stories and they're great fun. Go play chess with the hustlers.

[01:13:29] Dan: I find that interesting. You actually have commented before that you cut down on playing chess because it's so addictive. It takes over your brain in ways that you don't like. What do you mean by that?

[01:13:39] Nabeel: Chess is one of those games. I think it was Paul, it might've been Paul Morphy who was one of the greatest chess players of all time. He was a lawyer in the 19th century. He beat everybody, but not by a little bit either. He really just wiped the floor with everyone, became the greatest player in the world, and then he quit chess completely and spent the last two decades of his life not playing chess. When asked why, he was just like, "To play chess somewhat well as like the sign of a gentleman, but to be the best at chess is a sign of a wasted life." [laughs]

[01:14:11] Dan: Oh, interesting.

[01:14:13] Nabeel: That's basically what I think. I do play it probably a little bit more than I would like, but life is about having fun as well.

[01:14:21] Dan: What do you think about California? Is that overrated or underrated?

[01:14:25] Nabeel: California is probably my favorite place in the world. I think it's not rated enough. People outside of California don't realize the degree to which it is where almost everything in technology is happening. If you even just take a snapshot of the things that have captured the discourse over the last couple of weeks, right, it's like the Apple Vision Pro, California, anything open AI, California. What else?

I feel like everything you can name has its origins in California and technology. I think if you're in tech and you don't move that for at least a year, you're doing yourself a disservice. Even apart from the tech thing, it's unbelievably beautiful. I think it's the most beautiful place on earth. It has some really rich traditions and other things that interest me as well.

A lot of interesting poetry came out of California. I'm really into the '60s and '70s, poetry scene there, Gary Snyder, and people like that. It intersected with Zen Buddhism in a really interesting way. A lot of Zen teachers left Japan and moved to California and established Zen centers there. There's a whole strain of California Zen Buddhism that's quite rich as well.

[01:15:34] Dan: Okay. Say you were put in charge of SF, what do you think it should fix besides housing and homelessness? Is there, is there anything else that would make it better?

[01:15:43] Nabeel: Apart from the two things you named, I do wish there was more to do in the arts. New York is just much more-- SF does have some, it has a great symphony. The SFMOMA is phenomenal. There's a lot of interesting stuff to do, but the problem is you can do it all in a week and you do want more than that. I think if I was an eccentric billionaire and I just had a lot of capital to throw around, I would consider, founding more museums there or creating more rich public infrastructure. I think that's way too limited.

[01:16:16] Dan: Now, do you think that the homogeneity of SF being like just tech, not a lot of arts and not a lot of people that are-- maybe there are, but it's very, very focused on tech. Whereas New York, there's all sorts of different industries. People focus on all sorts of different things. Do you think that's part of what makes San Francisco, San Francisco? If it were to absorb some of New York's interestingness outside of tech, that it would lose something that it has, or do you think it could absorb it and stay with the magic that it has in tech?

[01:16:42] Nabeel: Right. I think more of both. Right. I do think I agree with, I think it was Noah Smith who said SF should just be like Tokyo. It should be this massive thriving metropolis. I think he's right. I think people there on average might underrate, again, the value of more illegible contributions.

One discussion I remember having on Twitter a while ago was just why is there so little visible legacy left by tech philanthropists. If you look at someone like Andrew Carnegie or JP Morgan, JP Morgan has the Morgan Library in New York, which people still go to today, beautiful library. Andrew Carnegie built these gorgeous libraries all over the United States. They look like Greek temples. They're really nice.

I think given the immense amount of wealth in tech, people are right to donate that to causes that people like effective altruists would focus on. I think they do also underrate the value of just having a thriving civic life. Things like museums and libraries and arts and stuff like that is probably underinvested in SF, I would say.

[01:17:47] Dan: How important do you think professionalism and clothing style is? New York, notably, you just don't see a lot of hoodies and sweatpants. I feel like in San Francisco, whether it's sweatpants or yoga pants, or just like the athleisure vibe is everywhere. Do you think that that matters at all in any way for the city?

[01:18:06] Nabeel: Again, I think this goes down to a view of human life. I think there is something freeing about SF in that, if you're really serious about tech and that's what you're serious about, then that's all you need to focus on. You don't need to worry about what you wear or anything like that.

I think if you have this view of human life, that's more "well-rounded" then, maybe somewhere like New York or London is a better fit for you.

I think it's nice that there are options. For the people who do want to just wear shorts and flip-flops, you can go live in the South Bay and it's great. I think the way people dress in LA-- LA is much more fashionable, but a lot of people do just wear athleisure 24/7 and that's fine.

[01:18:48] Dan: What's your strategy for finding good places to eat in New York?

[01:18:51] Nabeel: [chuckles] I struggle with this. The problem is it's a bit of a pain to get to the good food, basically. There is lots of good food in places like Flushing, for East Asian food or Jackson Heights for things like Pakistani food. To get to outer Queens from Manhattan or Brooklyn can be a little difficult sometimes. I do think it's like find someone who knows those neighborhoods well and just get them to take you to their favorite spots.

I do think things like Google reviews are pretty low signal in New York. I tend to find that everything just has like a 4.3 to a 4.6 and sometimes the 4.6 is not very good and overpriced. Sometimes actually the 3.8 is amazing. [chuckles] I don't know. I find Google not that helpful. I think it's like tribal knowledge. I ask people I trust, where do they like to eat and go from there.

[01:19:43] Dan: What's the most underrated travel experience you've ever had?

[01:19:47] Nabeel: Two that I enjoyed recently, one was, Taipei. I loved Taipei. I think more people should go visit Taiwan. It's absolutely incredible. It's this tropical island. It's very lush, it's very green. The people are super friendly and helpful. There's definitely a language barrier. It reminds me of Japan in that respect. People don't speak English. They do speak Mandarin there. It's just a phenomenal place. It's got high-speed rail, it's clean, it's convenient, it's easy to get around. There's a lot to see. I think a lot of people will go to Tokyo, they'll go to Singapore and they'll neglect Taipei, but Taipei is really fun. That's one. Also, the food is world-class. World-class food. You can feed two people for under $10 and you can eat really, really good stuff.

That's one. I think two is Norway. I really, really, really liked Norway. It's hard to explain exactly what I liked about it, but it's just stunning. When you drive around it, it just feels very old, but also modern in some ways. One thing that struck me a lot is you drive around rural America and you see pickup trucks and gasoline cars. If you drive around rural Norway, I saw a lot of Teslas, but parked at farms, which you just don't expect to see that. You're like, "Why does this farmer have a Tesla Model S?" I saw that a lot in Norway.

You just see these interesting things and the churches were amazing. They have these, I forget the name of them, but they're constructed all out of wood. Even the nails are made of wood and they look absolutely insane. They look like something out of a video game and it's just an extraordinary country. The people are really nice. Norway and Taipei.

[01:21:30] Dan: Do you think it's more stressful to be a teenager or high schooler than it was back when you were in high school?

[01:21:36] Nabeel: Well, I don't know. It's hard to say. Certainly, the discourses that there's phones, there's Instagram, there's TikTok, people are comparing themselves to other people more. My intuition says yes. I don't know what the reality is. I don't remember being that stressed out personally in high school. Just the usual things that people struggle with but I felt like I had a lot of spare time to read and explore and so on.

It does feel like the competitive aspects of life have ratcheted up since then. If you want to get into an Ivy League school, you have to do all these extracurricular activities. You have to be part of debate and all these things, but people can find that stuff enriching and fun too. It's a little bit hard to say on balance.

[01:22:20] Dan: Let's talk a little bit about Twitter. You wrote a recent post just talking about how great you think it is. It's given you a lot. You're really good at it. What do you think it is specifically about Twitter that makes it so good for what you call the serendipity machine? Why is it so good at serendipity and helping you meet people whereas Instagram, Snapchat, these other social medias never quite got the hook on it?

[01:22:44] Nabeel: Well, I think I'd say first of all, Instagram is good if you're interested in different things. A lot of people in the fashion or the music, or the movie industries, Instagram is their primary thing and they do meet a lot of friends through Instagram. I think that's valid as well.

Twitter is a place for people who are interested in ideas and it's for idea obsessives, for infovores. The way they use the term autists on Twitter, it's like, it's not really what autism actually is, but it's like its own category of just somebody who keeps up with everything and takes in all these different sources of information and is just obsessed with synthesizing it and joking about it and meme-ing about it. If you're into that kind of thing, it's a very rich playground.

I've met over 100 people off Twitter and had a good experience in every single case. It's usually somebody that I've been mutuals with for a while. You can tell a lot about a person from their Twitter feed or just looking at their likes and what they like and retweet. It's a really high-dimensional source of data on somebody's personality. I can tell if I just browse someone's feed whether I'm going to get on well with them or not. I think I've probably met you through Twitter and a lot of other people and everyone's really great. Highly recommend.

[01:23:58] Dan: Are there any highlights of people that you've met in real life through Twitter, even if you don't have to give names, any good stories?

[01:24:05] Nabeel: Yes. I'd have to think about this one for a little bit. Let's just say I've been invited to a lot of billionaires' houses. [laughs] That would never have happened if I wasn't tweeting. You land yourself in a lot of surreal situations. I think one interesting example of dark matter is just like, there's a lot of private conferences that occur and they tend to be, "We'll invite 10 people who tend to be active on Twitter and also are specialists in a particular area." I think if you don't have this public presence, you can miss out on a lot of this stuff. I think there is a lot of value in doing that.

[01:24:48] Dan: How do you not get addicted to it? What's the right balance between creation versus consumption?

[01:24:52] Nabeel: I think there's a constant balancing act. I think you and I both know. What works is very individual for people. Some people set screen time limits, some people don't have the mobile app installed, they only use it through desktop. I find I'm okay with it. For me, what I do when I'm at home is I put my phone in a drawer and I can only use it if I go to that drawer, open the drawer, and stand there. I can't take it around the house. I can't lie in bed with my phone. Because then what happens is you go into a black hole and you scroll for two hours. I think as long as you minimize that scrolling, it's fine.

I do think there's a lot of basic mental health stuff that you need in place to do well on Twitter. You see this. A lot of people become prominent, they spend all their time arguing with their followers. They get sucked into this public persona and then they go a little bit crazy and sometimes they leave the platform or they just turn into this character that they weren't to begin with. I don't want to name names, but it happens to a lot of people.

I think there's an element of being able to take when someone dunks on you or dislikes you and is public about it, is one thing. That gets to a lot of people. Just generally not taking it too seriously. Part of that is realizing that people are meaner online than they are in real life. A lot of people who are dunking on you on the internet, if you met them, you'd probably have a great chat and you'd probably be friendly. Don't take it too seriously. [laughs]

[01:26:11] Dan: What do you think are some of the recent product changes that Twitter has made? They've nuked links that you can't really actually post a link anymore. It just shows up as an image and then it's also going to not promote you as much if you have links in. You can now post an entire paragraph or blog post in one tweet. What do you think of these things?

[01:26:29] Nabeel: I've been more positive on Elon Twitter than most people I know. I think long tweets were a really good idea. A lot of people said that it was ugly at the time, but I think basically for me, the argument is there's a lot of posts that never get posted if long tweets don't exist. There's a lot of things that aren't quite worth writing a blog post about, but you can't be bothered making a thread about them.

A trivial example but Andrej Karpathy, the ML researcher recently wrote his review of the Vision Pro as a long tweet and it's great. I don't think he'd have blogged that necessarily, but like long tweets enable all these things to exist that wouldn't otherwise have existed. I think that's good. The one thing I'm unequivocally not a fan of is nuking links. I think that has directly decreased the utility of the platform for me because I use it to find interesting things to read.

Now it's a little bit more about current events and things that are happening live in the world, but it used to be that people would publish, they still do, but they have to resort to all these hacks now. They have to post a screenshot of it or something and then you have to dig around and the replies to find the link. It's just annoying. I really wish they revert the links thing. I think the Substack thing is petty and they should not deboost posts with Substack links because it's actually really hard to find somebody worth reading on Substack. You have to dig through.

I think that decreased the utility of Twitter for me but in general, I'm pleased that they are shipping more. I think the platform is actually improving. It's still a great place to be. A lot of the people who whined about it and left have come back since. Overall, good.

[01:28:07] Dan: Do you think that Farcaster, one of these competitors, has a shot at taking it over as a serendipity machine?

[01:28:12] Nabeel: Hopefully, we'll just see a lot of competing ecosystems. I don't think any of these is necessarily going to kill Twitter. I've been on Farcaster, I've been on Bluesky. I think that Farcaster has definitely siphoned off a lot of high-quality discourse around crypto. For that reason, I'm not super active on it because, I have nothing against crypto, but I'm not that into the ecosystem either. You can go on it and people like Vitalik or Venkatesh Rao are posting really interesting thoughts there. It is a rival ecosystem and I hope it does well.

Bluesky, I'm really not sure about. I think I was really, really a big fan of the decentralized ethos of it. A worrying property of Twitter that it's a single point of failure for discourse. Right now you have Elon who owns it, but theoretically, if somebody less oriented towards free speech owned it, or if the government just decided that for whatever reason they wanted to restrict discourse on it, a lot of discourse would die as a result.

I think it's an appealing aspect of Bluesky's design, at least in theory, that you can't really shut it down because it's based on these multiple nodes, a little bit like BitTorrent or Bitcoin. I do think decentralization is a good property for social media to have in the future, and I want more experimentation along those lines.

[01:29:32] Dan: If you were head of product at Twitter, what's the top change you would make other than bringing links back?

[01:29:38] Nabeel: Oh my God, there's so many. A couple of things that come to mind, one is I would love to be able to tune my feed based on what I want to see more of and what I want to see less of in a better way. I think you can do this with LLMs pretty easily now. What I mean by that is I see a thoughtful tweet, maybe it's a discussion of a quote from a book or something like that, I want to say to my feed "Show me more of these." Conversely, when I see some random video of someone getting punched in the face or whatever, I really want to see less of that. I find that just clicking on the three dots and saying, "Show me less of this, doesn't really work very well." I think better topic tuning is one.

I think the other thing, I wish for is they introduced these bookmark folders and there's this bookmark feature that's first-class feature on a tweet now, but you can't really do much with it. Categorizing bookmarks into folders is a pain and it's impossible to find bookmarks that you did months ago.

I don't think you can search them. Maybe you can, but it's hard to dig through. I think the Twitter's tool for thought kind of thing is undervalued. There's a lot of old content on Twitter that is just buried under the sands of time and Twitter in general can do a much better job at resurfacing that. It's so rich.

[01:30:56] Dan: Let's talk a little bit and shift over towards AI. You spent a good chunk of time recently in San Francisco and as I understand it met with a lot of folks working at the major AI labs. I'm curious what's your sense for how critical it is to be in SF? You got to this a little bit earlier when we talked about San Francisco and New York, but if you're specifically working in AI, how critical is it to be there?

[01:31:16] Nabeel: I think it's very important to be in SF and AI. It is really the center of it. To make it concrete it's like where are most of these innovations actually coming from. They're coming from OpenAI and Anthropic. They are both based in San Francisco. Most of the AI researchers are therefore based in San Francisco.

If you're not there, you are not getting access to what's being talked about, that's not on Twitter, not on the internet. It's illegible. If you're not at those discussions, you're going to be missing out on the bleeding edge. Someone said something pretty depressing. I think it was on one of the podcasts where they said, "A lot of what gets published anymore is not any good and all the good stuff does not get published because it's a trade secret now."

If you're OpenAI and you figured out how to make AGI, you're not going to publish that. Yes, I think the value of this dark matter is important and I think paradoxically, the agglomeration effect of being at SF is even more important. I definitely think people should go there. With that being said, there's plenty of successful AI companies not in SF too. I do think AI is going to be this very broad-based movement. MISRA was probably the most leading open-source effort outside of Meta and they are based in Paris.

[01:32:29] Dan: What's your sense for the ratio of people out there who are worried that that world is going to end doomers or versus just straight-up optimists? It's hard to tell if you're just on the internet because there's just a couple of loud people on both sides, but what do you think it actually is?

[01:32:43] Nabeel: I think that it gives you a very misleading picture of this. Basically, most people are very uncertain. When you talk to people, I think the only thing that everyone agrees on is that it's probably going to be a big deal. Everyone's reaction is like, "Oh my God, AI. Ah. [laughs] Everything's going to change." I think everyone agrees on that. I think some people are more doomery.

Some people maybe don't see what the doomers are talking about. I would still say that's the majority of people. I do think doomerism, it's a slightly pejorative label, so maybe we shouldn't call it that, but people who are worried about X risk, I think it's still a minority actually. I think if you talk to the average AI engineer, my take would still be that they are like, "What's the fuss?"

That's why they're building it. You have GPUs going burr all over the place in San Francisco and new models are coming out. They're building it because they want to build it. They see it as inevitable; they want to be the ones to make it happen and they think that we have a shot at making it safely. I do think that's the median opinion.

I think the thing that gets a lot of online attention, and clicks are these two extreme positions of like AI has a 99% chance of killing us all. I didn't quite see the concrete argument there and I think that's probably what most people think of that. On the other hand, you have EAC, which is like "Accelerate and don't worry about safety at all," and that's probably a little bit crazy as well. I think it's like life. Most people are moderates, they're in the middle, they can see both sides, but the two polls get the most attention.

[01:34:19] Dan: Of folks you talked with in the industry. What do you think the average AGI timeline is?

[01:34:22] Nabeel: [laughs] I don't know about the average, but I have a very biased sample from going to parties full of AI researchers. For them, they think it's likely going to be here in the 2020s. I would guess, most people probably think the median is somewhere between 2035 and 2040. There's a lot of people with much more aggressive timelines than that.

I don't know how serious people are when they say this, but a lot of people will say like, "Oh yes, two years." I don't believe that. It's very uncertain. People forget that-- I don't know the exact dates but GPT-4, so it's what? February 2024 right now. That thing probably finished training in the summer of 2022. That's over a year and a half ago now.

Whatever is cooking in there is probably much more powerful. There's a bunch of big unknowns because you have LLMs, fine, but what happens if you actually get synthetic data and self-play working? Can you then bootstrap them much faster? Then what of all the attempts to combine LLMs with search, it's unclear because these things aren't public. Generally, I think most people are pretty bullish in SF on AI within this decade and they see the rest of the world as somewhat oblivious to this fact still.

[01:35:45] Dan: What's your timeline?

[01:35:47] Nabeel: My timelines are relatively short I would say, in the sense that I would be pretty surprised if we don't have something that everyone can call AGI with a straight face by 2035.

[01:35:58] Dan: Shifting over to more mundane utility just like today, what's the most interesting use that you get out of LLMs?

[01:36:05] Nabeel: I use ChatGPT a lot. I rely on it pretty heavily when I'm doing programming tasks just because I do think it's a good programmer actually. You really have to know what you're doing to use it properly because it will do really stupid stuff, or it'll just write really ugly code. I think you do have to know what you're doing, but there's a lot of stuff in programming that's very tedious and, you can just ask the LLM to do it and it'll do a pretty good job.

There's a lot of stuff that's harder for humans that is pretty easy for LLMs, and you can just ask it to do it to minimize your own cognitive efforts. If you know that there's an efficient way to do this query and it's some complicated algorithm, you can just say, "Hey, LLM, I think you have to use this algorithm to solve this. Can you just write that in Python for me?" It'll do it in less than one minute. It would probably take me an hour to do this properly. That's a huge time-saving.

I think number one is programming. I find it very helpful to brainstorm on for things like essays or books that I'm reading. We talked earlier about deep reading things like The Iliad, I actually found it fun to talk to GPT-4 about The Iliad. I would put in some Greek text, and I would just be like, "Hey, can you show me the different ways translators have rendered this?"

Sometimes it would do a pretty good job, or I would just dig into, "What does this word actually mean in ancient Greek? What are the connotations of it?" It's really, really good at that. I think for deep read reading it's maybe a little bit underrated. It knows a lot about a lot of random things, but you have to be very good at eliciting that knowledge.

Other people say that things that I haven't yet myself cracked, but that other people like for it. I think one is for writing, I still don't find it that useful. I really dislike the writing style it comes up with and I haven't even found it to give super useful comments on drafts actually or at least nothing that I couldn't have figured out myself. That's one.

I think two is, a lot of people find it useful for therapy or therapy-adjacent uses. They'll put their journals into it and go, "What can you tell about me?" I don't know. I don't find that super compelling yet, but I'm bullish. I think people are exploring all the uses of it right now. I think especially like-- the thing I'm maybe most excited for just for it is like the number of tedious tasks that humans do in the world is so high and I think automating all those workflows is actually a moral imperative. [chuckles]

I think it's a huge waste of human brain power to be doing a lot of these things. The sooner we can automate this stuff, the better. I think most people maybe view that as a little scary, like, "Oh, we're automating everything" No, I think we should do that as quickly as we can.

[01:38:39] Dan: I ask this question a lot, but if we-- You just take GPT-4 current days models, and we were to just deploy it throughout the economy. How many of the use cases do you think we found versus in five years we'll be like, "Oh my God, I can't believe it took us so long to realize it was useful for X."

[01:38:54] Nabeel: That's a really good question. My sense is that we're still just scratching the surface. People are still figuring out how to use this thing. You probably remember when you first started using Google. I think now our use of Google is way more sophisticated than it was back then. I think GPT-4 is like that except its way more high dimensional [chuckles] than a search box.

The uses will be endless. I think a lot of what's going to happen though over the next 5 to 10 years is just that actually deploying things into real-world settings is very, very complicated for reasons that have nothing to do with AI. There are things like regulation, there's things like user experience, training, all these things. A simple example would be medical use cases.

The amount of time that doctors waste on taking notes and writing up notes and generally sitting in front of a computer, clicking things in EHR software is insane. It's a huge black pill. [chuckles] I think just being able to automate that for them so they can spend a bit more time caring for patients would be great. Now, is the capability there technically? Yes. Has anyone done this for the whole economy yet? No. I think that's what a lot of the next 5 to 10 years will look like.

[01:40:10] Dan: One thing that you've talked a little bit about is just back in the low interest rate environment, it's felt like FAANG engineering. It's like tech in general. These jobs were unrealistic. You have total comp that is really, really high, people not necessarily working a ton of hours. I'm curious, do you think that we're going to find a new equilibrium? Do you think AI will change the software engineer as this really high status, high paid job?

[01:40:35] Nabeel: I actually think the opposite here. I think it's going to increase it. I think the comp in that industry is going to go even higher and software engineers are going to get better and better paid. Maybe this is going to cause some social problems. You see it now. If you look at the stock market right now, Nvidia has gone completely insane. It's up some ridiculous percentage. I think it's worth $1.7 trillion right now. The entire Chinese stock market is worth about $8 trillion. Nvidia is basically eating the economy. I think right now we're in an era where being able to use AI makes you as a software engineer more productive if you know how to use it correctly.

It actually improves productivity for a lot of engineers. I think that should increase comp for engineers. I think what you will see though is that you can have companies that are run by fewer people as a result. One engineer can maybe do the job of two now. It's not quite that easy, but that's the direction that I think AI will go in where you can have smaller companies. Everybody is extremely well compensated though because the returns to automating the world, and the APIs of everything, and automating everything are still so high. What you'll see is increasing returns to software, I think, over the next decade.

[01:41:55] Dan: How bullish are you on the economy just generally? Should you go lever up and just dump it at the S&P?

[01:42:01] Nabeel: I'm mega bullish. Most of what I have is in the S&P. I had this dumb tweet go viral a long time ago that was about the Roaring Twenties, and I think that was true. I remember tweeting that during the pandemic and everyone was like, "Ah, we're in a pandemic. Can't you see that?" I think that was correct. I'm mega bullish. I think what we're going to see is high total factor productivity. We're clearly seeing revolutions along multiple dimensions right now. I think LLMs are exciting because in any corporate setting, you can deploy them in some useful way.

People are still figuring out what that is for a lot of industries. I've had customer service delivered by LLMs, and it was fast and it was great. This is already happening. I think things like this are going to cause massive productivity gains. How the employment picture shakes out is anyone's guess, but I'm generally pretty optimistic about the US economy. Where it gets trickier is in other places.

I'm from the UK, the UK is having some tough economic times. I think the question there is just, will they allow themselves to reap these productivity gains? Because I think over there, what you have is the governance and the local, all the rules getting in the way of them getting anything done. A lot of economies are going to surge ahead. A lot of economies that were previously great might get left behind.

[01:43:33] Dan: Let's talk a little bit about this post you wrote on puzzles and problem-solving. I really liked this one. You compare the active traits of someone who's really good at solving, say chess puzzle or just becoming a great founder or something, and the differences between different types of problems. There's one concept I was wondering if you could just explain, which is the difference between what you call science brain and founder brain.

[01:43:55] Nabeel: I read this a while ago. The way I saw it was basically that I think founders have to be maybe a little bit more delusional about what they're doing, whereas I think in science brain, you're constantly trying to refute everything and really figure out what is true. You're very skeptical of every notion by default, unless you can prove it. This is actually very paralyzing in early stage startups. I think frequently in early stage startups, you're faced with a scenario where you have a thing, it works, but it's not growing it 100% a month or whatever. You have to figure out what to do with it.

You can come up with a lot of ideas. Then it's very, very easy for a skeptic to shoot down every single one of those ideas. You could say, "Okay, well, let's build AI agents." "Oh, no, there's 100 other startups doing that. Why would we be the ones to succeed? Think like a Bayesian." Then you can do that for every single idea that you can possibly come up with. The net result of that is you try to do nothing because you refuted every single idea you came up with.

I think in that way, the science brain can work against founder brain. Founders do have to be optimistic in the sense that they will try stuff that has a low likelihood of success. They will try lots of things very, very fast. Eventually if they persist, something will work. I think the scientists and the engineering mind is often not amazing at this because they're too good at spotting the flaws in everything.

[01:45:22] Dan: I'm curious on problem-solving, there's a meme on Reddit. This is actually something I found is more of a chess newbie, you might say, where they'll always show classic new player on, and their puzzle score is really good. Their end game score is terrible, they just can't win the game. I find this experience too, where I can play the puzzles because I know there's an answer. I can sit there and stare at it. I improve, but then I get in the game and I almost feel like I never know what the answer is. Do you feel any translating of this to your framework for problem-solving and how you relate it to founders?

[01:45:58] Nabeel: The internet author, Goran, has one of my favorite blog posts of all time. It's all around this theme on how if you know that there is an answer to something, the thing becomes radically easier. You see this effect all the time. The classic example of the four-minute mile, as soon as Bannister ran the four-minute mile, suddenly a lot of people did it right after him because suddenly everyone was like, "Oh, if this is possible, maybe I can do it too." Then there's a famous among scientists story of Claude Shannon, the information theorist, where I think he was trying to solve a puzzle.

Then somebody came by and said, "I could tell you something." That was all he needed, and then he solved it. Again, it was a similar thing where someone just giving you a hint that something is possible at the right time. Garry Kasparov said something very famous about chess cheating, which is, he said that you need a very small amount of information to cheat very effectively at chess. In fact, you only need one bit, which is if you're in a critical position, sometimes you don't know it. You might've experienced this. You're in a position you don't know that there's a tactic that could win you the game.

If someone just buzzes at the right moment, maybe they flash a light or something, that tells you you're in a critical position, suddenly you find the tactic.

[01:47:10] Dan: How interesting.

[01:47:11] Nabeel: A lot of games are not won because somebody didn't realize there was a tactic in the position. This translates in all kinds of ways, but I think fundamentally, people will get very good at problem-solving in the artificial environment of solving puzzles, but then the real world is a much more wicked environment. You don't necessarily know what framework to apply to the situation in front of you. That's the whole difficulty.

[01:47:40] Dan: Actually talking about this idea of iterating and the founder versus science brain, you know in your post basically that founders "you know when something isn't working way before you're actually able to admit it to yourself. It's best to save yourself time by admitting that it's not working sooner. Cutting your loss is iterating quicker." This gets to how you answer the first question. You want the cycle time to be as fast as possible. The more cycles, the higher your chances of success overall.

Now, I'm curious how to balance this because you get some conflicting startup advice sometimes. In Peter Thiel's Palantir principles, he notes that you like what really want to avoid diverting your attention too often because applied effort often has a convex output curve. Basically what he's saying here is, don't get distracted by shiny things, but yet you want to iterate quickly. What's the right balance here? Do you have any insight or intuition on how to balance this?

[01:48:28] Nabeel: This is the classic explore-exploit problem. It's a huge issue in startups in general because on the one hand, you have this lean startup mythos, which is try a bunch of stuff, throw it against the wall, see what sticks. Then Peter Thiel likes to set up the other opposition of, no, you must have a vision of how the world must be. You must stick to it. Forget the feedback, just go and press on and make that vision real. I think the reality is always some combination of the two. I think, again, it's a case where these dichotomies were a little bit misleading.

I think it is very, very important to have that vision of the world, but then be very flexible about how it should be achieved. A very good example is Peter's own company, PayPal. I think they initially were wiring money between PalmPilots. What they actually realized was taking off was they were helping people sell Beanie Babies on eBay. They leaned into becoming the payment processor for eBay sellers. That's how they got traction. The original vision for PayPal was actually a world currency much like Bitcoin is today.

Clearly, it didn't end up becoming that. I do think there's this element of you have to be flexible and willing to pivot on a dime. At the same time, it's hard to argue with something like SpaceX. The whole reason they're going to Mars, it's not for economic reasons. Elon's a genius at this. He'll probably figure out a way to make money from it eventually. They're doing it fundamentally because he has this vision that humans should be multi-planetary. I think ultimately, if you do want to do something that makes a dent, then you have to have that vision. I think if you just take the iteration thing too seriously, what a lot of people end up with is incremental software. You'll end up maybe building a pretty good B2B SaaS company or something like that, and it will be economically valuable. Don't get me wrong, but it won't be that SpaceX going to Mars visionary thing.

Another quick example is OpenAI. They're all the rage now, but from, I don't know, 2016 onwards, they were just trying lots of random stuff in AI. They just looked like a bunch of weirdos in a garage. People forget this part of the story. I think it took them having this vision that machine intelligence's time had come for them to stick with it long enough such that one of their bets on large language models actually did work out in the end.

[01:50:53] Dan: We've talked a little bit about books, and film, and all sorts of different types of activities that some people might just ascribe as entertainment. I'm curious, how do you distinguish between the two if you want to really go and learn something versus you're just entertaining yourself? When you're watching a movie, do you have in your head like, "Oh, I'm learning versus I'm just unwinding and entertaining," or what is the difference between these two things in your mind?

[01:51:18] Nabeel: [chuckles]That's such a great question. It's really deep. I actually want to write an essay about this. I think a couple of things. One is I think a lot of forms of what seem like learning are actually entertainment. I think the reason for that is to really learn something in a way that sticks, you basically have to derive it for yourself in your own schema. Often the best way to do that is to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and maybe a textbook, and then eventually be able to derive everything yourself. Almost nobody does this because it's really, really hard.

The result is that most people walk around without explicit models of the world in their mind. I think that what happens in practice is people will listen to content that's quite engaging. A simple example is you want to know more about economics, you'll listen to something like the Freakonomics podcast, which is very good. You will learn some bits about econ, but you can listen to 100 episodes of Freakonomics and not walk away with a clear model of the economy in your brain. I think we need to distinguish between these activities of taking in bits of information that don't necessarily fit into a schema versus creating the schema in your brain.

I think what that schema tends to look is a model. You can tell because the people who have done this and have done this high level of first-principles thinking tend to have very distinctive opinions. Tyler Cowen is one of them. He's always asking you, "Okay, what is your model of this situation?" It's always this jarring question because you're suddenly like, "Oh, I don't really have a good model of this." I was lucky because I had this economics tutor at uni who, we just used to do imitations of him because he would always interrupt us when we were saying anything and be like, "What is your model?"

We just got very good at thinking in that way. I think people need to construct their own models. If they don't do that, then it's hard to argue that something's learning. The other thing I would say is you asked about art, I think art sits in this boundary case where a lot of it is just entertainment, but some of it is less entertainment and more experience. You can learn a lot from experience. When you travel to a country, you learn a lot. That's not just reducible to explicit statements. You learn what it is like to be in the place. If you have, let's say a romance that doesn't work out, you learn a lot from that experience. Sometimes in ways you can't really summarize, but you feel like you got wiser.

I think a lot of art sits in that category where you come away from it with this highly compressed experience of something. You can't say exactly what it is. Think about like Hamlet, think about King Lear. You watch King Lear, he's being a fool. He promotes his two sociopath daughters and neglects the one who's really good. The fool makes fun of him and he ignores him the whole time. You can't just boil it down to, okay, make sure you listen to dissenters. You could, but you'd be wrong. You go through this experience when you watch King Lear that is valuable at the end of it. I think it's inaccurate to say that's just entertainment. It's more in the category of a memory that you go back to a lot.

[01:54:44] Dan: What should one do on a sabbatical? How do when it's time to take one?

[01:54:49] Nabeel: I think most people don't do this enough. Sam Altman has this great line. I think it's spend five years working on a thing, one year orienting, or something like that. I think most people will neglect the one year orienting. I think a lot of people don't spend enough time making sure that what they're doing is the thing they're meant to be doing with their lives. It's too easy to stay one more year because the money's good or whatever it is. Everyone has very valid reasons for doing this. To be clear, life is expensive. You have to have money in order to do things like buy houses, and have children, and so on.

I think if you can afford it, you should definitely take a sabbatical. I think that a simple framework for it is the hill-climbing problem from computer science. Often you'll climb a hill and it'll just be the local hill. There are bigger hills that you could be climbing elsewhere. I think the sabbatical is the randomization device that plucks you off the local hill, puts you in a strange part of the territory. Now, you're in the middle of the forest again and you have to explore. I think that's very healthy and stimulating. I think you'll end up trying a lot of stuff.

I think one thing that's interesting that you learn that is maybe a little hard-won knowledge for me is you cannot just sit there with a blank Google Doc and figure out what you want. You cannot introspect and out of that come a list of things I want. You actually have to try a lot of different things and do a lot of different things. Then some things will stick and some things don't. Those are the things that you do on.

Some things will just resonate with you more, but you have to figure this out empirically. It's not knowledge that you can introspect or just dredge up, I think. There are some things that do help. For example, figuring out what you did naturally as a teenager, that's actually a very good signal. I think sabbaticals are great because you get to try a lot of stuff that you just don't have time to do when you have a day job.

[01:56:39] Dan: If you currently have a day job, do you think that you should have some sense of what it is you want to spend the time on? Do you develop that? Is that part of the sabbatical, is developing like, "Oh, I'll go figure out what I'm going to try?"

[01:56:50] Nabeel: I think it's one of those things. I think having a plan is always good, but you often end up throwing the plan away a couple of months in and that's fine. I think the planning is helpful. I would say for myself, I didn't have a super defined sense. I had a few things I wanted to try out. I knew I wanted to travel for an extended period of time. I wanted to go spend more time with my family. I think one of the things I found a little depressing about full-time work was just, my family's abroad, so I'll see them for one week at a time, which is how much leave you can get. Then you have to go back.

You want those deeper moments where you spend more like a month with them or something. Just being able to do that was valuable. Then I think there were things like, for example, I had constructed these reading lists for myself. I had a bunch of classics that I'd missed over the years. The Iliad, Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, things like that. I read all of those. I had a reading list on the history of technology, which I'm still working through, but it contained a lot of critiques of technology. Things like Ivan Illich, and Neil Postman, and things that we talked about.

I wanted to immerse myself in that perspective because I've always come at things from a techno-optimist lens and I wanted to really challenge my own views. I think as long as you have sets of these activities that you want to do and you have a plan for yourself economically and so on, then it can be a really good thing to do. I think the thing I would strongly urge anyone who does this is don't just sit in your room and scroll your devices all the time because I see a lot of people do this.

They do nothing all day, they don't engage in enough activities. I think just get involved with any community you can. Twitter is great for this, but find a lot of people, have coffees with them, do what it takes, but get active in some way and try a lot of different stuff. Then you'll learn more about yourself through that.

[01:58:44] Dan: You have a page of principles on your website, your personal page. The number one is figure out what makes you imbalanced as a personality. What makes you imbalanced?

[01:58:53] Nabeel: I'm an extreme infovore. I think I just read everything. I read pretty fast. I watch a lot of stuff. I'm quite wide. I think a lot of people are pretty relatively narrow in one area maybe, and then wide in some areas. I feel like I just do well when I go deep serially on things. I went very deep on film. I went very deep on various aspects of tech over the years. I feel like being an extreme infovore and related to that, being maybe an extreme generalist is, I think, what makes me quite different from other people.

With all my good friends, for example, they get a little tired when they read too many links, or browse Twitter too much, or read too many blog posts or too many books in one day, I never get tired of that. I can just do it all day. It's actually, I have to like develop guards to not do this too much because it ends up being a waste of time, but I can just take in information all day. I think that's my imbalance.

[01:59:55] Dan: What's the most impactful cold email you've ever sent?

[01:59:59] Nabeel: The one that comes to mind is, I cold emailed Tyler a few years back and we ended up becoming good friends. I don't think I've told this story, but I emailed him a work of fiction that I made at the time, which I didn't end up doing anything with. It was a stub of a novel, which I ended up completing, but I decided I didn't want to publish it. I sent him the first 30 pages. I was just like, "Can you just tell me if this is any good?" [laughs] I didn't expect a response, but I'd looked up to him for a long time, and always blog. Tyler being a magician, within a day, he comes back with a bunch of comments. He's like, "I think it's great." It meant a lot to me.

I think that was a simple example where I didn't expect him to read it, but he did. The encouragement was really valuable to me at the time. I think more generally, it's very important for people to get this out of the way as soon as possible. Cold emailing people who you think are too important, or too famous, or too cool to speak to you, whatever it is, just do a lot of that as soon as you can. Do it in college, do it in your early 20s.

You learn very fast. It sounds very dumb, but you just learn really quickly that these are normal people. They have things that make them imbalanced too, and that's why they're successful. These are people who are in a room and sometimes they're confused about what to do next. They're just like you in all these relevant ways. When you see that, you realize that you too can do something great. I think it's like a huge leveler up of your ambition.

[02:01:33] Dan: Have you ever gotten anything out of meditating?

[02:01:37] Nabeel: Yes. I think meditating is an incredible thing to dive deep into for a while. I'm not a regular with it, but I think you'll learn a lot of important truths from it that are very hard to pick up otherwise. A really simple example is gratitude to pain or discomfort. When you're meditating, everybody has this experience where you sit still for a while and then your knee starts hurting and whatever. What meditation teachers tell you generally is to push through that and play with the sensation of pain. Then you realize this thing early on, which is that the sensation of pain can be separated into two parts.

There's the physical sensation and then there's your mental reaction to it. Actually, the mental reaction as well within your control. Then you have this very surreal experience sometimes where there's types of pain where you should get medical attention, but we're not talking about those. We're talking about things where you just get discomfort from sitting for a while. You realize you can make the mental sensation actually change and relate to the pain in a different way where it's not that bad. Eventually, you stop feeling it entirely. That's a really interesting lesson.

You actually learn this from running too. I run a lot and sometimes, I don't know, something will hurt for a while. Then if you just run through it, it will go away. Sometimes it gets worse, then you should stop. You learn that there's this weird subjectivity to a lot of mental sensations, and the sooner you learn that the better. David Goggins, who's the self-help, running military guy, I think he has this rule that when you think you've really got nothing else left to give in you, you actually can go for another 40% or something like that. I think that's true. You learn this.

I used to run marathons and there's a moment at mile 20 when you're just like, "I cannot go on. I physically have to stop," and you realize you can go on. I think learning this radical subjectivity thing, which I think in Buddhism, they call it emptiness, when you really internalize this, it helps you a lot in your day-to-day life because you'll get faced with stressful situations at work, or in your startup, or whatever it is, or somebody tongues on you online, or something. Being able to just relate to that pain in a different way is one lesson. There are many others, but everyone should try it, I think.

[02:03:59] Dan: What do you worry about regretting late life?

[02:04:04] Nabeel: I worry about not doing enough and not fulfilling my potential. I think that's the short answer. I also think that your view of life changes as it goes on. I'm sure that by the time you get to the end of your life, what you will find valuable about your own life will change. What I mean by that is I think when people are young, they have this strong desire to make a legacy, and leave something behind, and all this thing.

It seems that a lot of people get older and they realize that's not that important because actually in 20 years, probably people aren't really going to remember you anyway unless you really did something significant, which is 0.001% of the population. What really matters maybe is the family you had, or the connections you made, or whatever it is. I do worry about not doing enough, but I also try and hold that lightly because I do think your attitude to this changes.

[02:05:06] Dan: Now, you tweeted about this before. It does seem like there is an interesting number of people who achieved a lot in their life. Steve jobs is probably the most salient one to me, where he would talk all the time about knowing that he's going to die and reminding about it. Do you think that's actually a healthy thing to do?

[02:05:22] Nabeel: I think so. Definitely some people can be more morbid about it, but I think people don't have enough consciousness of the fact that life is limited. One of my favorite essays, it's such a cliché, but the Seneca Essay about the shortness of life, I think everyone needs to read that because he says in all these very vivid ways that if you just accounted for all the time that you wasted, you would be horrified.

You can always do more, that's rule number one. It's just, you can always do more. You and I talked before this about starting a podcast and things like that. The actual amount of time that people actually take to do things that are important to them is quite low, but we spend a lot of time in the in-between place. I think we can all just move a little bit faster and ship a little bit more.

[02:06:14] Dan: For productivity, shifting gears just a little bit here, do you get value from Roam, Notion, these extra SAS software apps in your life or are you more of an Apple Notes guy?

[02:06:27] Nabeel: [laughter] I am more of an Apple Notes and Google Docs guy. I was really into things like Roam and Obsidian for a while. I think my view in this changed with things like dbt, which is basically, I think a lot of those tools encourage you to form explicit schemas for your own knowledge and categorize things and tag things in certain ways. Actually because we have models that understand human language now, what it's going to look like is that you have an intelligent AI assistant. It will find you whatever you need to find it or make whatever connections you want it to make.

The highest alpha that you will have is just browsing through your old notes and maybe it resurfaces those for you in some way. Now, I think it's just going to be very unstructured, which is pretty much what Apple Notes is. AI is going to make up the difference. I think some people are very, very structured. I know a lot of people who are power users of Notion, for example, and it works well for them.

I found for myself that the effort it takes to set up those systems is not actually worth it for me relative to the gains I get. I think my memory is pretty good for things like conversations I have, things I read, things I watch, whatever it is. Maybe that's part of it. For me, it's minimalist Apple Notes, Google Docs. That's it.

[02:07:45] Dan: I took that same journey. I was using Obsidian a couple of years ago. Recently, I've just slowly gotten way back into maximum Apple. Let's talk a little bit about your experience working in tech. You joined GoCardless, I found this interesting. As I understand it anyways, you were employee number eight, and you were pretty early in your career. You ran BD and sales for them, closed their first 10 enterprise customers. That's a pretty intense environment to be in, to be at a small startup, closing big customers, and being responsible for revenue at a really early age in your career. How did you ramp up with presumably little background in sales?

[02:08:24] Nabeel: I was really young. I think I was 21 or 22. I'd graduated. I'd done a few months in consulting and I hated it so much. I remember reading a Paul Graham essay about startups and being like, "I want to do that." Unfortunately I was in London and there wasn't that many startups at the time. I remember looking up UK startups that had gone to Y Combinator and GoCardless was one of the only two. The other one was Songkick, which was also successful. Anyway, I ended up joining GoCardless because I was very, very impressed with the founders. They were very energetic, impressive, brilliant people.

They're all super successful today. Tom is one of them, Tom Blomfield. He went on to found Monzo, which was another billion-dollar company. He's now a partner at YC. I think it was a really good decision. It was really funny because what happened was I interviewed and they were sufficiently impressed with me that they gave me an offer, but they said, "You're the only business guy that we're hiring because I didn't study programming in undergrad, so we don't want business guys around here."

What they did was they gave me a Ruby on Rails book. They were just like, "Take four weeks to read through this and then come back when you can program." I was like, "Okay." Luckily I'd been programming as a teenager, so I knew how to program. I just a little rusty. I learned Ruby on Rails and then I joined GoCardless full-time. That was great because I became full-stack insofar as I had to do BD things, which essentially means growth now. If I wanted to, I don't know, ship a change to the website, I had to do that myself. I couldn't take any engineering time. I just had to learn to operate myself. I was lucky because those founders were incredible mentors. Matt Robinson is now a big angel investor in Europe. He was one of the founders. He took me under his wing. He was like, "Look, we're going to do sales together. I'm going to teach you how it goes." He gave me a bunch of books to read. I read them. I think we talked about this before, but a lot of the content on how to sell is really, really bad. I'm actually constantly surprised that when I meet somebody who knows me from my online presence, over half the time, they actually mentioned this how to sell essay that I wrote as one of the things they liked the most.

It's funny to me because I think it's really badly written. I just wrote it one day, annoyed, and just shipped it without revising it very much. It's had a life of its own. I think it's just because a lot of the content on selling out there is bad. What I figured out, and this goes back to our convo earlier about reverse engineering, social interaction, how the autist understands, is that you are actually able to reverse engineer sales. It's not as complicated as people make it out to be. Moreover, a lot of the tactics that people teach you are very counterproductive. It's like sales is not about selling, you have to qualify the prospect.

Often it works better just to say, "Look, the product actually isn't for you, you're a benefit elsewhere." What it is, is just knowing who your target customer is really well, understanding what they do right now and where the pain is, then once they're aware of that problem, then just explaining your product very neutrally. People are smart. They will know if they want to buy your thing. You don't have to convince them.

Typically, it's that they don't have the problem. That's the real issue with selling. That's one thing I figured out. Enterprise sales is its own beast. It's a very complex process. There's lots of stakeholders that you have to get aligned. We can talk about that as well. These are just things I learned by doing very, very fast in a very intense environment.

[02:11:58] Dan: What do you think was the key cultural aspect of that company when you joined? For you, if you're looking at a startup, what do you think is the most important cultural aspect that you would look for if you're going to guess whether or not it's going to be successful?

[02:12:10] Nabeel: It definitely set the blueprint for me. One thing I think that shouldn't be controversial is that it's much more impressive for somebody to found a billion-dollar company in early 2010s UK than it is to do that today in the US because the US is a bigger market, you know what I mean. It's like if someone did that in the UK in the 2010s, that's just much harder, I think. These guys did this. A couple of them have done it twice. Clearly, there's something going on there. I think what it was for me that was very striking was extreme intensity. People were brutally competitive. It's unfashionable now, but people would get in at seven o'clock and leave at 10:00 PM every single day.

I just got used to working like that as well. At the time, it was a real grind. Everything had to be done now. It was unacceptable to be like, "Okay, I'll take care of this tomorrow, or that's not my job, or things like that." Everything was your responsibility. You had to do it with extreme dispatch. There was a lot of value placed on having a primary focus and being very clear about that. If anyone asked you at any point what's your primary focus, you had to be ready with an answer. I think you'll find these traits in common to a lot of outlier success, early stage startups.

[02:13:28] Dan: How important do you think the idea is to a good startup? One thing I sometimes wonder is, can the best founders actually just enter super crowded markets and win?

[02:13:37] Nabeel: I think the idea does matter a lot. One thing about startups is you have to hold all these opposites in your mind constantly. I think two things are true. One is that the idea does matter a lot. The other thing is that it's also a starting point. These feel a little contradictory. I think the reason the idea matters a lot is because it is important to have some differentiated insight into the world if you're going to do a startup and do it well.

Whether it's some particular area of the economy is broken in a way that feels important or whether it's that-- In the case of something like Palantir, the foundational insight was that you didn't need to trade off between civil liberties and security in the way that most people thought about. You could actually have software that enhanced both. I think that wasn't something that most people were thinking about at the time. The dichotomy was either you have surveillance software or you're a freedom fighter and you're very anti-surveillance software. This is fine, but I think there's a lot of interesting room in the middle to enhance both things that people care about.

Similarly, with both GoCardless and Stripe, it's a view that there's a part of the economy where having a good legible API to it would be very, very important and unlock an insane amount of value. Stripe executed on that insight incredibly well. They had this developer first strategy in the early days and now it's materially impacting the GDP of the internet. I think having that differentiated insight is super important. At the same time, it is just the case that a lot of startups end up pivoting substantially from their initial idea. I do feel like the startups that tend to be bigger, tend to be the ones where the pivot is maybe a little bit less distant from the initial idea though.

It tends to be that the idea was had, maybe they had to tweak it a bit, but they tried it and it basically took off. [chuckles] I think if you look at those examples where it's like, "We tried eight different ideas and eventually one caught on," they still do well, but they don't necessarily become the Microsofts, or the Apples, or the Googles of the world. If you think about those three unicorns, it's not that all of them worked immediately, but none of them really departed that significantly from what they were trying to do from the beginning.

[02:16:01] Dan: What do you think that Peter Thiel saw in Alex Karp from the Palantir?

[02:16:05] Nabeel: Alex is a really, really interesting guy. He's obviously brilliant. I think that's the first thing. It is a bit strange because he's a philosophy graduate. He did his dissertation on Habermas and then he was asked to lead this company of very gifted Stanford software engineers mostly. The question is valid. It's like, why did he do that? I think Alex is really interesting. I think what a lot of people don't know is that he ran a successful hedge fund before becoming the CEO of Palantir. He ran this in Europe, I think in Switzerland or something, and he was already doing very well from that.

It's not like he needed a job as it were. I think he has a number of superpowers that make him very valuable. I think the two that spring to mind right now, one are, he has this insane Spidey sense for talent, where he does these very non-traditional interviews that can be very short. He'll ask very strange questions and then he'll have a pretty strong opinion on whether that person's good or not. Often it'll be someone who you wouldn't necessarily think is good, but he'll be like, "This person's brilliant," and he'll often turn out to be right. Early Palantir as a result was this magnet for talent. If you look at the 2010 to 2015 era, some of the most brilliant engineers in the valley were working there.

[02:17:28] Dan: What was he doing? What do you think he had? Is it just a superpower or what were these questions?

[02:17:35] Nabeel: I think it's this non-legible Spidey sense. I don't know that it can be taught. He asks strange stuff. I don't want to give too much away, but it's almost like having a personal chat with him about nothing to do with work. Then at the end of it, he'll come out with a pretty high dimensional view of you.

[02:17:54] Dan: Interesting.

[02:17:55] Nabeel: That's one thing. He has this notorious Spidey sense for talent. Then I think the second thing is in sales and closing deals. If you look at the customers Palantir has, they work with most of the governments in the Western world. They work with a lot of the Fortune 10, Fortune 500. They work with clients that a lot of tech companies will not typically get to work with, including things like intelligence services. A lot of that is down to Alex being very good at moving among that echelon of people.

[02:18:29] Dan: Notably, he's a philosophy guy and so are you. Peter Thiel, of course, is as well. There's not a ton of these in tech, but it does seem like there's many really high-performing ones. How do you think the two relate?

[02:18:41] Nabeel: Reid Hoffman is another one. Obviously, Peter is a great example. The relationship is I think pretty simple. It's like one, if you did philosophy, you're probably very curious about the world. Now, again, not always, but it does correlate. That's one thing. Two is that philosophy really teaches you how to think very rigorously and logically from first principles. This was the thing I took away from it. The way it's taught at Oxford, everyone has to do a bunch of classes in formal logic in their first year. You just get very, very good at taking any argument and just decomposing it into, "Okay, premise, conclusion, this doesn't quite follow from this and so forth."

You can get very good at that. I think that's very useful in reasoning about the world. It's this generically powerful skillset that I think everyone should acquire. If you're already good at this, you're a skillful engineer. I don't necessarily think you should spend a lot of time reading Plato. You could do it for fun or if you want to enrich yourself generally, but there's diminishing returns to going deep into Nietzsche or something like that, unless you're curious about those questions. I think everyone should get that formal logic skillset under that belt.

[02:19:56] Dan: From your time at Palantir, were there any of Peter's traits that you felt were really sailing it throughout the company?

[02:20:02] Nabeel: Definitely. I think he set the cultural blueprint for the company in a lot of ways. I think one is the intensity thing I talked about earlier. He's a very intense person. It's a very intense company. People worked very, very long hours. People worked extremely hard. There was no excuse for not winning, basically. It's an intense culture, which to me, I think correlates with success. I think two is the value of secrets. I think he likes to maintain a lot of illegibility around what he's doing.

I think the company had this for a long time, much less so after it went public. There was this air of mystery about it. To this day, the meme is, nobody can tell you how it does. That's true. Underneath it, there is a real thing. He has this line, which is, substance always wins over style, focus on substance. It is substantive, but there's also a lot of secrecy around it. I think that can lead people to underestimate how important the company actually is.

[02:21:10] Dan: Were there any things that you noticed that Palantir did exceptionally well that you think other companies are missing? You already hit on some of them, the intensity.

[02:21:18] Nabeel: I think so. I think there's a few things that come to mind. One is just that I do think working with sectors of the economy that are harder to figure out is very, very valuable. What I mean by that is things like the military, intelligence, crime, whatever it is. These are areas that most tech companies and tech people don't want to touch. The simple answer to that is that if you don't touch them, they will be worse and they will be more unjust. I think this belief in getting into the muck is really helpful. I think the second thing is the culture is very much one of going onsite.

Meaning the expectation of you as a software engineer was that you were going to visit your customer a lot, and work alongside them, and sit by them day by day. When I was in the airplane factory, I was working with aeronautical engineers. I was literally talking to the guys who were hammering bolts onto planes and things like that. Similarly, when I worked at NIH, I was working side by side with biologists, bioinformaticians, cheminformaticians, all these people all day, every day.

I think what you learn deep in your bones, and I think the reason why a lot of pounds here, and to leave, and do startups is that, you have to get out of the building. You have to get out of the room and you have to go and talk to people and talk to customers as much as possible and learn how they work very intimately, and then build technology to magnify their powers. I think there was a recent YC batch where there were more Palantir founders and they were ex-Google founders.

[02:22:59] Dan: Oh, interesting.

[02:23:00] Nabeel: Hilarious because Google is one order of magnitude, more employees at least. It's a very foundry culture.

[02:23:10] Dan: It's been a good two and a half hours. Nabeel, where, if people want to find you online, can they find more of your work, your talk, whatever?

[02:23:18] Nabeel: My handle online is generally nabeelqu, so N-A-B-E-E-L-Q-U. Twitter is usually where I'm most active. I recommend people go visit my website. That's DM me, say hi, let's be friends.

[02:23:34] Dan: Thank you for your time today. This was a lot of fun.

[02:23:36] Nabeel: Thank you.