Are the trolls and ogres of human mythology fossilised folk memories from a time when our species was hunted by monsterous Neanderthals? Probably not, but it's a fun idea.
The true story behind the invention of C:
1972 - Dennis Ritchie invents a powerful gun that shoots both forward and backward simultaneously. Not satisfied with the number of deaths and permanent maimings from that invention he invents C and Unix.
Classic analysis of the social dynamics of online groups.
Sam Harris and Rob Reid on the looming threat posed by synthetic biology.
Easily the most chilling Wikipedia article from the future I've ever read.
This podcast series picks up in 476 AD where the epic History of Rome podcast left off and traces the later history of the Roman Empire all the way down to the final fall of Constantinople in 1453.
It's like a zoo for footguns.
Ninety percent of everything is crap. This profound scientific principle may have more empirical evidence behind it than any other supposed natural law.
In 1239 Pope Gregory IX accused Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, Germany, Italy, and Jerusalem, of
calling Moses, Jesus Christ and Muhammad ‘charlatans’ and ‘deceivers’ who had fooled the entire world, of scoffing at the notion ‘that a virgin could give birth to the God who created nature’, and of maintaining that ‘one should accept as truth only that which is proved by force of reason’.
In reality Frederick probably wasn't quite as awesome as the pope makes him sound but the fact that the accusation could be levelled at all implies that atheists were rather thicker on the medieval ground than we often suppose today.
99% of people on the internet are lurkers, they consume but they don't produce. The overwhelming majority of the internet's content is produced by the other 1%, and those people are nuts.
Because a thick volcanic fog spilling south from a gigantic erruption in Iceland plunged the world into darkness for a year and a half, leading to a global famine. Right then, starving in darkness, it must have seemed like things couldn't get any worse, but really the famine was just a warm-up for the first ever outbreak of bubonic plague in 541 which killed half of the poor buggers who'd manged to survive the hell-fog.
This is a gem — an in-depth, step-by-step tutorial that walks you through the process of building a programming language from start to finish.
Fascinating interview with Brendan O'Leary, political science professor and author of the three-volume history A Treatise on Northern Ireland.
Interesting interview with William Foege, one of the doctors responsible for the international vaccination programme in the 1960s and 70s that eradicated smallpox — easily the single greatest achievement in human history.
To put it in perspective, smallpox killed roughly 300 million people in the 20th century alone, most of them children. In its last hundred years it killed maybe 500 million people, about five times the total number of people killed in all wars over the same period put together.
To a first approximation, curing smallpox was equivalent to 'curing war', except five times over.
This is a must for any programmer who uses a command-line text editor like Vim — it's a detailed tutorial that walks you through the process of building a text editor of your own in less than 1,000 lines of C.
This is a fascinating interview with Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson, one of the leading figures behind the Cold War arms control treaties banning biological and chemical weapons.
I've always liked that quote from the Buddha about anger being a hot coal that you hold in your hand waiting to throw at somebody. Aparently he never actually said it, but on the bright side I Can't Believe It's Not Buddha! is possibly the best title for a book ever.
I love this guy's name, Silvanus P. Thompson. This is a classic book — it's short, readable, and easily the most intuitive introduction to calculus I've read. Best of all, it was published in 1910 so it's now in the public domain.
Great podcast about the history of Dublin — each episode is a self-contained nugget telling the story of a person, place, or event.
Scott Alexander has been one of the most consistently intelligent and thought-provoking writers of the internet age. This collection of his essays is a treasure trove.
It's a truism that life is short but in this (short) essay Paul Graham makes the case that arguments of the form 'Life is too short for x' are actually some of the strongest there are.
If one man working alone can dig a hole in nine days then nine men working together can dig that same hole in one day. Seems obvious. Extrapolating, if one woman working alone can build a baby in nine months then nine women working together can surely build that same baby in one month?
Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.
Turns out writing software is more like building babies than digging holes. It might be almost fifty years old but Fred Brooks' The Mythical Man Month is probably the most insight-dense book on programming I've ever read.
This is a fantastic history podcast. I don't think there's a particular theme, it's just about subjects the presenter, Patrick Wyman, finds interesting. He's an interesting guy who's interested in interesting things so that actually works quite well.
Great article by Steven Pinker. I particularly like this passage where he describes 'classic style', an aspirational ideal for academic writing:
The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader so she can see for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.
Bonus link to a video of a Royal Institution lecture by Pinker on the same topic:
A fantastic two-hour-long debate between Steven Pinker and Stuart Russell on the "Foundations, Benefits, and Possible Existential Threat of AI".
A delightfully snarky history of web design. If you remember laying out websites using tables, this article is for you.
Imagine we're living in an oppressive theocracy. Secretly I'm an atheist. I don't even believe our God exists, I certainly don't support any of our oppressive laws, but I don't say anything because I figure everybody else believes and if I speak up I'll be tortured and executed. Now imagine everybody else feels exactly the same way.
That's pluralistic ignorance and it's the most underrated phenomenon in social psychology. You can build empires and religions on pluralistic ignorance. (More prosaically, it explains why authoritarians viscerally dislike the idea of online anonymity.)
This amazing set of animated math videos by YouTuber 3Blue1Brown is the best intuitive, visual introduction to calculus I've seen anywhere.
Ever wondered what would have happened if Harry Potter had arrived at Hogwarts a scientific child prodigy, determined to use logic and experimentation to uncover the true nature of wizardry? Me neither. But AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky has, and he's written a 1,500-page novel detailing the insanity that, quite reasonably, follows.
This blog post from back in the mists of 2012 may have the most perfect title ever written. The article itself is pretty good too. The Last Psychiatrist certainly doesn't think much of academia:
Imagine a large corporate machine mobilized to get you to buy something you don't need at a tremendously inflated cost, complete with advertising, marketing, and branding that says you're not hip if you don't have one, but when you get one you discover it's of poor quality and obsolete in ten months. That's a BA.
A surprisingly enlightening analysis of how and why medieval European armies were raised, trained, and fought built around... exactly, a military historian's review of the Battle of Helm's Deep scenes from the Lord of the Rings movies. How did people fill their time before the internet? I can't remember anymore.
Dying is a longstanding tradition in many human cultures around the world; Scott Alexander argues that sensible people do it as far away from hospitals as they can. I'm inclined to agree.
An archive of interesting documents from Irish republican history.
Interesting debate on the British Empire's decision to declare war on Imperial Germany in 1914, one of the greatest strategic mistakes in the history of Great Power politics.
A particularly good interview from the Irish Times politics podcast — political science professor Brendan O'Leary talks about the economics of a reunited Ireland.
This is fun — a military historian analyses the strategy, tactics, and technology on display in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies.
A long-runing podcast series by historian Finn Dywer with hundreds of episodes available, most between twenty and thirty minutes long. His 14-episode sequence on the Viking Wars and 23-episode sequence on the Norman Invasion are particularly good.
Peacefully, with dignity, and not in hospital according to professor of medicine Ken Murray. Classic essay on the downside to overly-agressive medical treatment.
I really enjoyed this set of podcasts by Silicon Valley tech investor turned philosopher Naval Ravikant. He's a smart guy with a lot of interesting things to say about the world. Admittedly, listening to him had zero effect on my net worth, but that's because I'm a uniquely spiritual individual. Less saintly types will likely find his advice more profitable.
Patrick Wyman had just completed his PhD thesis on the late Roman empire when he recorded this podcast series and his expertise shows. Balancing scholarly rigour with entertainment is a tough challenge but he manages it impressively well. The series has 23 episodes in total, each about 40 minutes long.
Rob Reid's After On tech podcast is a series of in-depth interviews with smart, interesting people at the top of their fields. These two talks with Naval Ravikant on near-future threats to human civilization are among the best. AI, drone technology, and (most of all) synthetic biology are the main topics on the agenda.
The granddaddy of all history podcasts, Mike Duncan's History of Rome was the first and it's still one of the best. Roughly 180 episodes, about 20 minutes each, covering the history of Rome from the founding of the city in 753 BC until the fall of the western empire in 476 AD.
Bryan Caplan's thesis: college degrees are valuable but not because colleges teach important knowledge or skills — they mostly don't. Instead, a college degree functions as a hard-to-fake signal for potential employers of an individual's pre-existing intelligence, conscientiousness, and willingness to conform.
Ryan Tomayko's classic (and very funny) introduction to "thinking in shell". I found this talk genuinely eye-opening the first time I watched it.
Philosopher Dan Dennett on the natural history of religion. His central thesis is that religions are memes — highly evolved psychological viruses which replicate by infecting human minds.
The single most vicious takedown of a programming language ever written.
Paul Graham's classic meditation on blasphemy.
Everything you never knew you wanted to know about hexagonal grids.
Classics professor Eric Cline on the mysterious Bronze Age catastrophe that brought down empires and ushered in the first Dark Age.
A useful summary with proofs and examples.