Conan’s Newsletter No. 9

How the 1918 influenza impaired the judgment of a president and led to World War II; The interview of Spotify CEO Daniel Ek; Use Notion to build personal wiki; First video tape of snowball fight; Visualization of Satellite trajectories;

Book of the Week

The Great Influenza. Credits:

The current COVID-19 pandemic is not the first pandemic, and it won’t be the last one. The book The Great Influenza by John M Barry may help you envision how the future years or even decades look like. I learned this book from Bill Gates’s article in May but only finished it recently. Despite that a whole century has passed, a lot of things in this pandemic have happened in the same way as the 1918 one so the book is still very relevant.

The book is not just a chronicle, it illustrates how American society reacts to a challenge like this and provides many interesting observations. In Chapter thirty-two, the author speculates that it was influenza that caused the bad judgments of the US President Woodrow Wilson in the Paris Peace Conference and caused the even deadlier World War II. In early 1919, the representatives of all nations gathered in Paris to discuss the new world order after World War I ended in 1918 partially due to the pandemic itself. For weeks and then months, heads of the US, Britain, and France were negotiating on the terms, and the sessions often went brutal. On April 3, Woodrow Wilson suffered a health attack, which Barry thinks was influenza, and had a fever of over 103 degrees. Partially because of the deteriorated health, Wilson lost the grit and ceded the extremely harsh terms insisted by the French prime minister Clemenceau, which created chaos in Germany and caused the rise of Hitler. Wilson also agreed to Japan’s insistence that it takes over German concession in China, which triggered the May Fourth Movement in China and catalyzed the spread of communism throughout the country.

It is incredible that the aftermath of the 1918 pandemic could be felt for the whole century. Had the Wilson not cede in the Paris Peace Conference, the rest of the 20th century will be quite different. Now that the current President and many white house officials have also contracted COVID-19 recently and an election is on the horizon, there is a chance that the aftermath of this pandemic may be equally long.

Personal Improvement

This week I highly recommend this interview by Spotify Cofounder and CEO Daniel Ek. In this interview, Daniel shared his lessons on managing Spotify and his personal life.

A great meeting has three key elements: the desired outcome of the meeting is clear ahead of time; the various options are clear, ideally ahead of time; and the roles of the participants are clear at the time.

One thing I find interesting is how Daniel’s perspective on time management and meetings. According to Daniel, a meeting would be a waste of time if one or more of the elements are missing. The make-up meetings are the single largest source of optimization for a company.

..learning resembles a tree: you see the trunk, you see the branches, and you see the leaves….

Another interesting thing from the interview is his comments on learning. Learning is all about the abstraction of the world. As you keep trying things, you will figure out what’s important and what’s not and build an abstract model yourself.

There are many tools to help with the process. One thing I find very useful is to organize knowledge in a graph and materialize the graph in some places (i.e. build your personal wiki). Previously I have been using Google docs to manage my notes and add cross-reference among them. Recently I started to use Notion, which I highly recommend. This video from Notion is a good tutorial for building a personal wiki using Notion.

Interesting Facts

The following tweet from Joaquim shows the first snowball fight in 1896 that happened in France. This is probably the most well-dressed snowball fight I’ve ever seen.

This cool tweet from Simon shows the trajectory of all active satellites. One interesting thing is that you could see the trains of StarLink satellites very clearly in the animation.

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