Votes For Most Interesting People

Feynman teaching
source: kottke.org

Who’s lived the most interesting life?

Following on from Tyler Cowen’s recent post I thought I’d share a few names of my own. These are people I find fascinating after becoming familiar with their works, achievements story, and so on; they aren’t people I find interesting but haven’t yet had time to study. Besides, you rarely find a person (book, idea, movie…) as interesting once you’ve satisfied your initial curiosity. These are people of whom my initial interest has survived my growing knowledge of them.

I posted a comment on Cowen’s piece about the physicist Richard Feynman, who to my surprise he didn’t include in his nominations. Here’s my comment, corrected for errors:

‘+1 for Feynman. Just putting aside his scientific reputation, (in no particular order), he taught himself radio engineering, hacked the Italian language, cracked safes, became a master seducer, learned to [sketch] and sold works under the name ‘Ofey’, experimented with ketamine, lucid dreaming and flotation tanks, and played the frigideria as part of a Brazilian band. I don’t know how much he travelled, but in a league of his own? Undoubtably. Of course his intellect was another matter. David Deutsch called him the smartest man in history.

I highly recommended his books, as do I James Gleick’s lengthy biography.’

Unusual for persons of extremely high intellect, the iconoclastic Feynman had an incredibly colourful life. He did things differently to most people in his field; he was primarily self-taught, dabbled in a host of other domains outside of science, and was a brilliant teacher.

Not deviating too much from Tyler Cowen’s piece, my next nomination is the author himself. I’ve heard many people I’d consider quite smart call Cowen anything from ‘one of the most interesting people’ to ‘genius’ to ‘the smartest man on the planet’. If the speed at which he processes information is anything to go by, they may well all be correct. His blog Marginal Revolution is one of the best I know of; produced by him and colleague Alex Tabarrok (another very interesting person), since 2003 he’s been sharing with the world his thoughts on everything from economics (his field) to philosophy to food to dating to books… basically, everything he deems worthy of talking about. Because of Cowen I’ve started to view economics as the body of knowledge that speaks to every other body of knowledge. Hence it makes total sense that some of most interesting people are trained economist; the principles of economics play themselves out everywhere.

He’s authored thirteen-plus books, the latest being The Complacent Class, an in-depth look at the increasingly prevalent complacency of American Culture and what it means for their own future and that of the world. He’s also a foodie, but not your average one. Instead of viewing eateries from a curiosity, hunger or customer review lens, he chooses where to down grub by analysing the economics of the business. This means considering the incentives of the owners and staff, the location, the type of food, and so forth.

Alongside Tabarrok he founded Marginal Revolution University: a free(!) online learning platform dedicated to teaching economics in a manner that is fun, flexible and no-BS. The teachings are primarily in the form of videos delivered by some of the most engaging people in the field. If you’re interested in the world I highly suggest you check it out.

If you’re a podcast junkie like me, you’ll probably love Conversations with Tyler. Cowen sits down with people from all walks of life and has ‘the conversation he wants to have, NOT the conversation they want to have’, to use his own words. His style is fast-moving, blunt, broad and as listenable as it is enlightening. Past guests include Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker, Raj Chetty, Peter Thiel, Nassim Taleb and Patrick Collison. The latter three being amongst my favourites.

Number three on my list is Eric Weinstein. Coiner of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ term and indeed arguably its darkest member, Weinstein is a polymath, speaking several languages and playing even more instruments; an insanely prolific generator of ideas, be it in physics, evolutionary theory, politics, mathematics, music, just to name a few1. He’s truly an intellectual powerhouse; Tyler Cowen also thinks so. His brother, Bret Weinstein, must also be mentioned. Like Eric, he grew up with learning disadvantages, but has done very important work in evolutionary theory and has an equally as intriguing mind as Eric’s. I am notably less familiar with his work, but this looks good.

A word about learning difficulties: I found it very hard to believe these pair had problems with learning growing up, but upon hearing Eric speak about how the realisation forced them to overcompensate using different methods and more discipline, I changed my mind. Eric, similar to what Tyler Cowen spoke of in a discussion with Ezra Klein, turned a fundamental disadvantage into his main advantage. Though an issue with a plethora of variables, I often cringe when I hear of kids being medicated to calm their ‘scatter brain’ characteristics. A great book on this is The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks.

In the future I may elaborate further, but other people I find very interesting include Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Francis Galton, Charlie Munger (recommended: biography by Janet Lowe), Buckminster Fuller, Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, and James Cameron. And further back Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci.

Who gets your vote?

  1. (recommended: a detailed coverage of many of his foundational ideas)

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