Sunday Reads #86: Filters, Funnels, and Nigerian Princes

Apr 12, 2020 1:32 pm

Hope you and yours are keeping safe.

I'm back again with the most thought-provoking articles I've read in the week. (in case you missed my previous newsletter, you can find it here).

This week, we start by looking at those "Nigerian prince" scam emails that even a kid could recognize. Why are these scammers so stupid? Turns out there's a good reason, and we can all learn from it.

Next, we look at two good ways to conquer reading list overwhelm.

Third, a thought experiment on alien life and why we haven't seen any (not my usual fare, but trust me, you'll find it interesting).

Here's the deal - Dive as deep as you want. Read my thoughts first. If you find them intriguing, read the main article. If you want to learn more, check out the related articles and books.

1. How dumb are these "Nigerian prince" scamsters! Or are they?

Have you ever received an email from a Nigerian prince, going somewhat as follows?


I’ve received a bunch of these over the years.

It’s a standard template. Someone in Nigeria or Congo or Dubai, is dying or is dead. They have several million dollars they want you to safekeep. They need you to make a small payment first for some ridiculous reason.

Would you fall for an email like this? Of course not. Come on, this is 2020! No one would fall for it.

But “Nigerian prince” email scams still rake in over USD 700,000 a year – and that’s from the US alone.

Well, you say, you didn’t mean no one. Of course there are some clueless people around. And 700K is not an astronomical sum.

In fact, you go on, if the scamsters could make their emails even a little more plausible (a small business owner in the Mid West instead of a West African prince, for example), more people might fall for it.

And while we’re on the topic – we should also correct the spelling mistakes. Seriously, why do scamsters always make so many spelling mistakes! Even in subject lines!

Yes. These “Nigerian prince” emails could be more polished and plausible. But making them less plausible is precisely the point.

And there's plenty that we can learn from them, as managers and marketers.

Read on in How dumb are these Nigerian princes! Or are they?.

2. How to read - "lots of inputs and a strong filter".

I love reading. I ponder at least once every day, "so much to read, and so little time!" (and I know my newsletter sometimes evokes the same consternation).

The answer is: use a strong filter. Or two strong filters.

A. Don't read everything people tell you to read.

As Rolf Dobelli says in How to read books (short read), "what if you had a ticket with 50 spaces for reading 50 books... for your entire life?"

As he says in the article:

"Today I read differently from how I did only a few years ago. I read as much as before, to be sure, but fewer and better books, and each twice. I have become extremely selective. A book gets no more than ten minutes of my time before a verdict is reached – to read or not to read. The image of the multi-trip ticket supports me in my radicalness. Is the book which I’m holding in my hands a book worth sacrificing a space for on my ticket? Very few are. And those that are I read and immediately reread. On principle."
"The effect of a second reading is not twice that of a single reading. It is much greater – based on my own experience I would estimate it to be ten times greater. If after a first reading I remember 3%, after a second reading I remember 30%."
"I have limited myself to 100 spaces for the next 10 years"

I can vouch for the value of the re-read. Some books take that second reading to hit you - like High Output Management, which I've read 3x now. Never Split the Difference - two readings so far.

And some books you loved the first time don't seem that ground-breaking after all.

B. Feel free to stop a book anytime.

As Morgan Housel says in How to Read (another quick read), don't let bad books burden you.

Start as many books as you want, but finish few of them. Take lots of inputs, but use a strong filter.

And in a pinch, you won't go wrong with the old rule of thumb: 100 minus your age.

  • When you're 25, feel free to drop a book after 75 pages, if it doesn't engage you.
  • When you're 50, 50 pages are enough. Life is short.
  • And when you're 100, you're finally allowed to judge a book by its cover.

3. The Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter

I gorge on science fiction books.

Anyone who reads sci-fi wonders about alien life. And sooner or later, confronts the Fermi Paradox.

What is the Fermi Paradox?

It's this: if the universe is crowded with life, where is everybody?

Life tends to colonize. Early in our evolution, we were content to colonize Africa. And then Europe, and then the New World. Today, we want to go to Mars. 500 years hence, we might develop light-speed travel and colonize the nearest star. Within a million years, the whole galaxy?

That's the origin of the Fermi Paradox.

Life tends to colonize. As enough time passes, you would expect living things to colonize other stars in their galaxy. And enough time has passed (the universe has been around for thrice as long as the Earth has existed).

Then why is the universe so silent, in any direction we look?

Where, indeed, is everybody?

Robin Hanson tried to answer this question in his 1998 paper, The Great Filter - Are We Almost Past It? (yes it's an OLD paper. But it's a seminal thought experiment - well worth a read).

To paraphrase his paper:

The fact that our universe seems basically dead suggests that it is very very hard for advanced lasting life to arise.

There may be a "Great Filter" at any crucial step in evolution of a interplanetary civilization. A filter which very few intelligent civilizations manage to navigate.

Maybe it's very hard for RNA or DNA to arise. Maybe single-cellular life is a giant step that almost never happens. Maybe it's sexual reproduction that's an almost impossible step. Or maybe it's the evolution of tool-using animals with big brains (us).

Or maybe... the Great Filter is still to come.

As Hanson says:

  • If the steps in our past were improbable Great Filters, then our chance of colonizing the galaxy is high.
  • But if the steps in our past were easy, then we're virtually certain to get extinct before we colonize the galaxy.

For example, if we find that single cell life evolved independently on Mars, it would mean the steps up to that point are not that hard. Bad news.

If we get radio signals from an alien civilization in a nearby star system, then that's bad news too. It would mean that evolution of signal-sending sentient beings isn't that improbable.

So, in a very real sense, no news is good news. Maybe we're the lucky ones.

Wait, is COVID-19 the Great Filter?

Don't worry, it's not.

As Scott Alexander says in Don't Fear the Filter, the great filter is not likely to be a "garden-variety" extinction risk like global warming or nuclear war, or a pandemic. We're too far spread out.

It could be unfriendly AI though, as author Toby Ord says in his book, The Precipice (excellent review here).

The book helpfully calculates the probabilities of Great Filter existential risks, which I'm happy (or a little perturbed) to share below.


4. To end on a more positive note...

Are we starting to gain ground against COVID-19?

The no. of new cases per day is plateauing (and going down in Europe), as this chart from Our World in Data shows:


The US doesn't look as great, but even there, we're fighting back.

I may be grasping at straws here, but this is how the first step in a successful fightback would look. Fingers crossed, let's keep calm and social distance.

Speaking of grasping at straws, here's the Google Search trend for "force majeure".


Nope, don't think you can claim force majeure when it's your turn to wash the dishes.

That's it for this week! Hope you liked the articles. Drop me a line (just hit reply or click on the "Leave a comment" button) and let me know what you think.

PS. If you like the stuff I send you every week, I'd be honored if you could forward this to a friend so they can subscribe. Thanks a lot!