Top Heroes of the Year

  1. Elon Musk – For being one of the few people in Silicon Valley, or in all of the US really, to think big enough. He earns the top spot just for saying that he hopes to die on Mars.
  2. Thomas Piketty – For providing this data-eager media climate a much-needed data infusion showing how the post-WWII period was a blip, and we have reverted to historical levels of inequality.
  3. Lawrence Lessig – For trying to tackle campaign finance reform through the Mayday Super PAC.
  4. Maria Popova – For her untiring work compiling the most interesting articles and links of the week in her Brain Pickings newsletter.
  5. Tim Ferriss – For being the guinea pig of experiments in self-improvement and bio-hacking, so that the rest of us don’t have to test everything on ourselves, but can just follow his shining example instead.
  6. Nick Bostrom – For starting the debate on how we should build an AI that will not destroy humankind in his brilliant book Superintelligence.
  7. Yuval Harari Noah – For eloquently and innovatively summarizing the rise of humans in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
  8. Peter Thiel – For investing in business that can create 10x improvements instead of incremental change, and for supporting potentially society-changing ideas such as Seasteading.
  9. Richard Linklater – For one of the most innovative movies of the last years in Boyhood.
  10. Max Tegmark – For his work on multiverses, for example in this year’s book Our Mathematical Universe.

Top 10 Fails of the Year

  1. Google Glass – Very disappointingly, Google Glass seems to have become a failure. There are still a few reports of it getting new usage in various industrial settings, but Google seems to have stopped promoting it. But then again, it’s early days for this kind of revolutionary technology, so we don’t know yet if this was a Newton or an iPhone 1.
  2. Twitter changes – In their new shape as a public company, Twitter has been forced to make a number of moves that potentially can bring in more revenue. Unfortunately, most of these changes also tend to upset the existing core users, as Twitter becomes more and more like Facebook and loses a bit of its individual identity.
  3. Abenomics – Japan’s GDP figures are just getting worse and worse, and it’s now back in recession. This is hardly the outcome that Abe was envisioning, and the reason can’t be as simple as the consumption tax or his failure to shoot his third arrow (the regulatory one), it must speak to the momentous task of turning around a moribund economy with an aging population (while turning off nuclear power)
  4. Hedge Funds – Hedge Funds have underperformed significantly this year (again). It seems the old idea that hedge funds would benefit from volatility does not apply to volatility that is actually unpredictable.
  5. Chuck Hagel – Chuck Hagel failed to make a dent in the enormous behemoth that is the Department of Defense and failed to deliver a succinct Middle East policy. Hopefully Carter can improve on his performance.
  6. Iran nuclear deal – The extension to the Iran nuclear deal feels like a cop-out. It goes to show that the negotiators do not actually represent the actual power bases in their respective countries (Congress, Khomeini).
  7. The New Republic – I actually admired Chris Hughes when he bought the failing classic title that is The New Republic, but it seems that was shortsighted of me, he did not seem to have the best of the magazine at heart. Yes, it’s great to be a vertically integrated digital media business, and yes, it is hard, nigh impossible to run a traditional media business these days, but still…TNR is TNR. Or was.
  8. Facebook’s psychology experiments – This year, Facebook’s users learned that they are indeed the product, as Facebook revealed running large-scale tests designed to impact users’ moods. On the one hand, the necessary A/B testing of a data company, on the other hand, never felt more like a guinea pig.
  9. Brazil’s World Cup performance – Rarely, even including England’s constant self-flagellating pre-tournament hubris, has there been such a disconnect between the performance of a team forecasted to win the tournament by everyone and their dog before the tournament, and the actual performance in a game.
  10. Failing itself – This year, we were inundated with a flurry of articles proclaiming the necessity of failure itself. Most of this Silicon Valley-led effort, which might as well have been funded by a SuperPAC-equivalent of VC firms, failed to mention the difficulties of failure and the low success rates.

The Secular Age, On Being, De Botton and finding God everywhere

A recent David Brooks op-ed discussed Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age. I think my key takeaway was the quote that people are “incapable of being indifferent to the transcendent”. People are rejecting organised religions since they are too educated and too well-informed to be able to accept the questionable parts that come with them. But that doesn’t mean that they are content with a daily life that has no spiritual aspects.
One of my favorite books of recent years, as I’ve mentioned before, is Alain De Botton‘s Religion for Atheists. De Botton highlights a number of ways for today’s secular, hurried and discerning person to regain some of the aspects that religion would have given them had they been born a hundred years ago. Some of my favorites include treating museums as churches that open our minds to new influences, and filling our calendar with regular times for ritual, the way the church year makes introspection structured and regular by designating specific days for it.
According to Brooks, Taylor says people are moving toward a galloping spiritual pluralism. Everyone wants to have their own religion in our age of individualism. De Botton’s structured approach could help them get there. A podcast that looks at spirituality in a similar vein is APM’s On Being. In it, Krista Tippett explores all today’s differing facets of spirituality, and all the ways people have of finding their own God, and their own connection with a higher sense of being. It offers many interesting takes on where faith pops up in our secular world. For me, the most interesting ones are the ones where religion, technology and philosophy intersects, such as this episode on string theory and this one on exoplanets.
With the growth of meditation in Silicon Valley, and Tim Ferriss offering his version of meditating, we’re seeing more and more examples of people being able to marry spirituality with science and knowledge. Seems like there is still hope that we can all achieve spiritual fulfillment even in this secular age.