Hello! My name is Devon. I am a software engineer at Affirm. In my free time, I read weird blogs, work on side projects, take public transit, & train for triathlons. I love reasoning about, improving, and designing systems and infrastructure.
An abridged list of things I want to learn more about and related links to interesting articles, essays, and studies on those topics. You can find a more long-form set of links here.
- Urban planning and transporation
- Coordination problems
- Digital visualization tools (and generally any tools that help people think and create)
- Ethics and Meta Ethics
- Consequentialism, especially utilitarianism
- Vegetarianism and veganism
- Effective Altruism
- What's your utility function? Really! Let me know!
- Health, nutrition, and fitness
- Synthetic biology
- Bio fuels
- Transhumanism and the idea that humanity is a "work in progress"
- The history of language
- Natural language processing (NLP)
- Rationality and biases
- Group and organizational
- Emergent phenomena
- Artificial intelligence
- Economics (as traditionally applied to the economy as well as all other facets of social interaction)
- Cryptography, stenography, and information theory
Work & Professional
The Stanford Review
I am Editor Emeritus of The Stanford Review, a bi-weekly paper that publishes investigative news and opinions articles. Some of my favorite subjects to think & write about are healthcare reform, the interplay between privacy & technology, tax policy, rationality, artificial intelligence, and the Second Amendment.
I am a section leader for Stanford's introductory programming classes, CS 106A and 106B, in which I teach Java and C++ to students with little to no prior coding experience. As someone who came into college with no prior exposure to programming, it's particularly rewarding to see my students progress because I remember being in their position only a few years ago and know firsthand how much a little push from supportive friends can propel someone forward into the world of computer science. Teaching has also given me an even better understanding of the fundamentals of CS and an ability to communicate with people about technical problems.
Books, blogs, & podcasts that I like
Recently I've shifted away from just reading text (paper or otherwise), as I'm always trying to optimize my time and I've discovered that it's easy to find time to listen to podcasts and audiobooks throughout my day while I'm getting dressed or walking to my classes. Currently, my favorites include:
The Power Broker is the biography of Robert Moses, who was the NYC Parks Commissioner from the 1920s through the 1960s. Moses is more responsible for reshaping the entire face of New York City than any other individual, and his thinking influenced urban planners nationwide and beyond throughout the 20th century. Over the course of his career, Moses personally conceived and completed projects costing 27 billion dollars, more than any other US government employee ever. These projects ranged from highways and bridges to housing complexes and city parks, many of which required bulldozing entire neighborhoods and in turn displacing hundreds of thousands of NYC residents. Despite the immense impact he's had on the field of urban planning, Moses was never elected to public office. The book is not only a look into Moses' fascinating life but also a unique perspective on American history and urban planning during that half century. Aside from the intensity of the story itself, the research that went into this masterpiece is just awe-inspring. The author Robert Caro is the best researcher-writer whose work I have ever read. His exhaustive series on LBJ is also fantastic; although it's more well-known and even more ridiculously in-depth than The Power Broker, I enjoyed the story about Moses a bit more because his impact was more concrete and on a more understandable scale. Also, The Power Broker is a story about taking a seemingly insignificant position and wielding it in a way that massively amplifies its power, whereas LBJ's story is more about climbing the ladder until you're at the top. As a side note, the narrator for the Audible recording of is fantastic.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson follows the intertwined exploits of a cryptanalyst working alongside Alan Turing in the 1940s, a morphine-addicted marine in the Pacific Theater of World War II, and a nerdy programmer in the 1990s who creates a safe haven for data in a world where government and corporations seek to control the flow of knowledge. Think Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy mashed up with Godel, Escher, Bach, and you get Cryptonomicon. This book manages to be extremely fun and thought-provoking at the same time.
Season of the Witch is a tapestry of San Francisco through the 60s and 70s. Growing up in the South Bay ~45 minutes away from the city, I had learned about the hippies on Haight Street and the gay-friendly culture of the Castro, but this book opened my eyes to a whole new level of richness in the city's history. I learned gems like the fact that Jim Jones and The People's Temple (of the infamous 1978 Jonestown koolaid massacre) played an instrumental role in George Moscone's mayoral victory in 1975. As a result, Moscone appointed Jones as the chairman of the SF Housing Authority Commission, and Jones gained access to California politicians like Governor Jerry Brown, SF Supervisors Dianne Feinstein and Harvey Milk, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. In exchange for his cult's political support, these figures supported him and The People's Temple up until the day the news came in of the mass suicide at Jonestown. This shocking episode is just one of the incredible stories I learned about San Francisco's history from SOTW, and it completely reshaped the way I think about the city. From Jonestown and the Zebra Murders to Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, I can sum up what I learned in a brief sentence: SF during the span of the 60s and 70s was the real Gotham City.
- This review and interview with the author offers a good sense of what the book is about.
"San Francisco had these demons because the rest of the country had them. But I think San Francisco dealt with them in a much more compassionate way than anywhere else in the country." – author David Talbot
The Better Angels of Our Nature describes the steady decline of violence over the course of human history. I was initially skeptical of Pinker's thesis, but I can't see any way that you wouldn't be convinced of his argument after reading through the exhaustive research in this book. As a bonus, The Better Angels of Our Nature will leave you extremely optimistic about human progress, though at the same time you'll be horrified by how people have treated each other throughout most of human history.
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which includes The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. This was the defining book series of my childhood (wayy better than Harry Potter...). The books' writing is so good and its themes are so enduring that I still reread them every once in a while. These books also carry the honor of being the best-quality audiobooks I've ever listened to; rather than just one narrator reading the entire story, each character in HDM is read by a different actor from a famous London Shakespearian troupe, and DAMN they do a fantastic job. Some of my best childhood memories are road trips with my family, listening to the series on our way to Yosemite.
Harry Potter & the Methods of Rationality takes place an alternate universe in which Harry is a child prodigy raised by scientists and "enters the wizarding world armed with Enlightenment ideals and the experimental spirit". I highly suggest the HPMOR podcast, which can be found on Stitcher, among other places. My fitness this winter can be attributed more to this audiobook than any other single thing-- I'd start off on a run or walk with my dogs and realize hours later that I'd burned through 10 chapters and it was getting dark out. Long story short-- HMPOR is fantastic.
Hayek's The Road to Serfdom argues that when economic power is centralized in central planning by the government, it almost inevitably results in tyrannical dictatorship and the creation of a repressive society.
Many of the people I'm closest to I originally met because their personal websites and tweets were interesting and I figured they were probably pretty cool, too. I highly recommend it as a strategy for meeting cool people. Here are a few of the blogs that have influenced me the most:
Scott Alexander's Slate Star Codex has (benevolently) forced me to reconsider my views more than any other single source of information and thought. His background as a clinical phsychiatrist (he is currently finishing up his doctor's residency) is different from that of most of the people I talk to, and that alone is very refreshing. He comes to issues ranging from feminism to the state of pharmaceutical testing with extremely original perspectives. In particular he has piqued my interest in meta-analysis of science. Not only are his ideas fantastic, but I'm blown away how prolific he is. He blogs multiple times a week, bordering on every day, and yet each post consistently makes me totally reconsider the topic at hand. Scott also just seems like a genuinely good person who wants to make the world a better place with his work. My intellectual development over the past year would have been much, much slower without Slate Star Codex in my life. I hope you check it out!
- My friend Michael Nielsen described what's so wonderful about Scott's writing:
Most essayists try to develop a story with a neat conclusion. But Scott develops 5 stories, all potentially the truth, all somewhat in conflict, and he tries to push them all through to the end as powerfully as possible. So his essays aren’t about pushing a conclusion. Rather, they’re about exploring (and relating) several different ideas about where the truth may lie, to the best of his ability. It’s a very powerful literary form.
- My friend Michael Nielsen described what's so wonderful about Scott's writing:
Since we're already on the topic of Michael... his site is also wonderful! The blog spans topics like Machine Learning, digital explanations and representations, and incentive structures within academia. When I first discovered it, I spent the better part of a weekend reading it all the way through and tweeting questions, comments, and my favorite quotes at him. Highly recommend!
Bret Victor's site is one of the most unique-in-a-good-way sites I've seen on the web. He is a great designer of media for thought, and his work has influenced my thinking and my projects immensely. I encourage everyone to go to the site and click through some of his demos. They are very fun as well as intellectually stimulating.
Some others that I'll get around to writing descriptions of one day:
Freakonomics Radio is a weekly podcast that discusses "the hidden side of everything". My favorite episodes include:
99% Invisible is about design, architecture, and urban planning. In a parallel universe I would have loved to be an architect, so this podcast is my weekly dose of how buildings and spaces affect the history around them. 99pi makes me consider aspects of cities I don’t normally think about, and it's particularly fun to listen to while walking through the SoMa district in San Francico on my way to work each morning. The episodes are nicely bite-sized too, about 25 minutes each. While the content of the show is great, the most unique part is that the podcast is just beautifully done – it is really a piece of audio art, with so much more depth and richness than traditional radio, and Roman Mars' (the host) voice is like velvet.
Planet Money deep-dives into some aspect of the economy twice a week. In one episode, they documented the process of creating an off-shore company, and in another they put $1,000 into shorting the US stock market. Tragically, I finally finished the hundreds of episodes recorded since Planet Money debuted in 2008, so now I have to actually wait a few days between each episode!
You Are Not So Smart explores self delusion, common logical fallacies, and the influence of cognitive biases on our thinking.
Backstory is hosted by three U.S. historians whose areas of expertise are the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s respectively. Each episode takes a single theme (e.g. "Body Politics: Disability in America", "Banned: A History of Censorship", "Fear Tactics: A History of Domestic Terrorism"), and over the course of an hour they use that theme as a lens to look through a range of time periods in American history. The show is very high quality, and I've learned a lot of things about US history that I likely never would have learned otherwise.
Criminal tells "stories of people who've done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle".
And a few others (in no particular order) for which I'll (maybe) get around to writing descriptions later:
- The Psychology of Attractiveness
- The History of Singapore
- The New Yorker Radio Hour
- The Bike Shed – Thoughtbot's podcast about programming and web design, particularly in Ruby
- Tentative – Thoughtbot's podcast about digital product design
- Imaginary Worlds
- Open Account
- Hidden Brain
- This American Life
- Open Source with Christopher Lydon
- 15 Minute History
- The Memory Palace
- Dan Carlin's Hardcore History
- Rationally Speaking
- The Economist Radio
- StartUp Podcast
- Reply All
Other things that I like
- An aptronym is a name aptly suited to its owner. A few of my favorite notable examples:
- Sara Blizzard, meteorologist
- John Carbon, American organic chemist
- Bernie Madoff, who made off with a lot of other people's money
- Marina Stepanova, former Soviet hurdler, first woman to run under 53 seconds in the 400 m hurdles
- Triathlons, especially coastal ones
- Workflow optimization–– I probably spend more time optimizing my workflow than I actually save.