“The Stale Tenement Air of Married Life”

Great opening paragraphs in this review of Joshua Ferris’s story collection:

It is late on a spring afternoon in Brooklyn. Sarah sits on her balcony, sipping a glass of wine, gazing down at the neighbors laughing on their brownstone stoops. A mystical sort of breeze arrives, one of “maybe a dozen in a lifetime,” tickling the undersides of leaves and Sarah, too, who now finds herself restless with longing for something new, for anything but the same old thing. Her husband comes home. “What should we do tonight?” she asks. “I don’t care,” Jay says. “What do you want to do?”

As most battered and seaworthy veterans of relationships eventually know, this is not the best response to a mate who feels herself to be in a sudden existential quandary, who, anointed by a breeze, is looking for something more than just another late-night superhero movie and familiar takeout sandwich. Bad though a spouse may be who dictates the marital laws, equally awful is the passive partner who simply goes along for every ride.

In that vexed, trembling fashion begins “The Breeze,” one of several standout stories in Joshua Ferris’s new collection, “The Dinner Party,” a magnificent black carnival of discord and delusion. Richard Yates once published a collection called “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.” With 11 stories of its own, “The Dinner Party” might comparably have been titled “Eleven Kinds of Crazy.” Coupledom, in particular, is shown to be a nearly hallucinatory proposition, involving those alternative realities commonly known as husband and wife, who suffer veiled and separate lives side by side, breathing in squalid proximity “the stale tenement air of married life,” as Ferris puts it.

Book Review: The Intel Trinity

Steve Jobs, in a 1994 interview, said that once you discover that everything around you that we call “life” — rules, expectations, institutions, buildings, companies, theories, and so on — were made by people no smarter than you, everything changes. Because when you realize that most of what seems permanent and “the way things have always been” was, at one point, the proactive creation of a fallible human being, then you learn that if you poke at life you can actually change it. From then on, you take a much broader view of life’s possibilities.

It’s a powerful point that I agree with, except for the notion that the institutions and companies and norms and countries around us were built by people “no smarter than you.” In fact, the Founding Fathers of America were probably smarter than you or me. Same with Steve Jobs. Not all of us is smart enough or persistent enough to leave an enduring impact. But it’s true most of us are smarter than we know.

In any case, if you apply Jobs’ comment to Silicon Valley, it resonates. It’s uncommon to step back and ponder who created the norms and culture of modern tech entrepreneurship that we take for granted today. I locate the answer in (at least) two companies. HP, where Dave and Bill pioneered the idea of flexible work hours, employees owning equity in companies, casual attire, non-hierarchal decision making, and so much of the “west coast” aesthetic that is central to modern Silicon Valley identity. When HP introduced these policies, they were considered bold and groundbreaking. And then Intel, which, by growing from an idea to the world’s most important company, set a standard for execution that became the high water mark for other startups that aspired to global scale.

Intel also was one of the first companies to raise modern venture capital. How often do we stop and think about the original investors who decided to invest real money in a high risk, low liquidity tech company, and the entrepreneur who thought to sell equity in his company in exchange for enough risk capital to shoot for the stars?

I recently read Mike Malone’s The Intel Trinity, a wonderful guide to the history of Intel and the famous troika of Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove. These guys created Silicon Valley. The Intel Trinity explains the story of Intel well, and the tremendously intense and sometimes volatile relationship between them. Those of us too young to have lived through the rise of Intel are an especially relevant audience for this book, as is anyone who does not understand the historical meaning or importance of Moore’s Law. While there are a couple chapters in the book about Andy Grove’s personal history, for more color on that — his unbelievable personal life story as an immigrant from Hungary — I’d recommend Grove’s memoir Swimming Across.

John Stuart Mill’s Life, In a Sentence

“Mill’s [life story] is of a man out in the pure sun of reason and rational inquiry, lit at night by the romantic moonlight of a little bit of love and just enough madness.”

That’s from Adam Gopnik’s wonderful account of Mill’s life. The opening paragraph of the piece contains this: “Certainly no one has ever been so right about so many things so much of the time as John Stuart Mill.”

Mill made it onto my icons list of 2009.

Book Short: The Complacent Class by Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen’s latest book — The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream — follows up The Great Stagnation and Average is Over as the third in a trilogy about what’s gone wrong in America that has caused, in Tyler’s summation, wages to stagnate, infrastructure to decay, entrepreneurship to slow, and in general a large swath of Americans to fall behind in the modern economy.

Lengthier reviews already published elsewhere, so I’ll offer just three impressions of this provocative book written by a good friend.

First, reading it was reminder number 6,238 that I live in an exceptionally privileged life. I’m doing fine and almost everyone I know is doing just fine. The economy around me is booming. I travel almost exclusively to parts of the world where everyone is doing fine. That I find myself in this position is due almost entirely to luck and good fortune; what responsibilities I and my fellow lottery winners have to those handed a harder set of cards is one of the most important moral questions I grapple with.

Second, the habits of mind and action that Tyler says contribute to the complacency of so many Americans are the same habits we write about in The Start-up of You — except we extoll the positive version of them, of course! Tyler talks about risk aversion; we talk about how to take intelligent risk. If you want solutions, at the individual level, to some of the diagnoses in The Complacent Class…then read The Start-up of You!

Third, there’s an ambiguity in language on the topic of entrepreneurship that pops up in this book and other books and articles that study economic data. Tyler cites data — and points to this 538 piece summarizing the data — showing that fewer people are starting companies. Even the tech sector has fewer startups today! Entrepreneurship is slowing down, it seems? Well, maybe. Venture capital is pouring into startups. If there were fewer and fewer companies being started, why is there more and more venture capital being invested in startups? I think the issue here is the definition of “startup” and “high tech.” High level economic data tend to look at “new business formation” to draw conclusions about “entrepreneurship” and they define “startup” as any sort of new venture. Even “high tech” is broader than the specific niche that Silicon Valley is famous for and that venture capital chases: software and hardware startups financed and run in such a way as to one day achieve massive scale. This sort of entrepreneurship — the sort parodied on HBO’s Silicon Valley, glorified on Shark Tank, and written about in the popular press — is thriving, even if, in general, fewer Americans are starting “new businesses.” Of course, this doesn’t detract from the broader point that a lot of Americans are facing stagnant careers and a lot of once-stable industries are no longer reliable sources of prosperity.

Anyway, Marginal Revolution, Tyler’s blog, has long been a must-read. And don’t miss his podcast, which is still fairly new but really hitting its stride…

What I’ve Been Reading

Two very long books.

1. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I really enjoyed working my way through this novel. If you’re new to Murakami, I wouldn’t start with this one. It’s dauntingly long (almost 1,000 pages), and I could see some readers getting lost — if you aren’t ready for it — amid the strangeness and sadness that permeate many scenes in the book. But if you’re in the right headspace, the hyper detailed descriptions, the plot, and strange sci-fi “weather” cast over Tokyo make a memorable reading experience.

Here’s just one quote that gives a sense of the vibe: “Once you pass a certain age, life is just a continuous process of losing one thing after another. One after another, things you value slip out of your hands the way a comb loses teeth. People you love fade away one after another. That sort of thing.”

2. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon

This is another brick of a book but of a very different sort: non-fiction, organized into focused chapters, each on some element of a non-ordinary life experience and how parents and families adapt. There are chapters on deafness, dwarfism, transgender, homosexuality, prodigies, autism, and others. If you’re a parent of a child who falls into any of these categories, it’s a a must-read. I’m not, but I still found myself learning a ton about the life experience of those with certain types of disabilities. In many chapters there’s a spotlight given to the push and pull of advocacy groups, politicians, educators, and others who try to standardize a point of view on whether parents should buy cochlear implants for their deaf child, for example, or a 5 year old boy who tells his parents he wants to become a girl.

Solomon inclines to telling anecdotes over statistics, because “numbers imply trends and anecdotes imply chaos.” There’s a lot of messiness in the real family experiences profiled here. Internal debate. Changes of heart. I’m in awe at how Solomon shares stories about the families he spoke to. Genuine compassion and yet steel eyed honesty. He manages to assert his own opinion on topics where there’s true debate, but without simplifying the matter or selling short the diversity of views.

How Romeo Stevens Improved His Life

He first describes how his life has gotten better. And then attributes it to the below actions. My favorite is #6.

  1. Movement. Sure, having an exercise habit, but also just physically altering my state when I am not functioning well gets things working more often than not. Weights, cardio, yoga, but also just walking and sit stand desk ($30 from Ikea parts).
  2. Info triaging. Reading many things at a coarser level and prioritizing more ruthlessly based on what seems valuable, alive. This is a rather pithy description for something of such vast value. It is probably worth a post. (huge ht to Alex Ray for finally finally convincing me to actually do this.)
  3. Developing exobrain systems that work for me in a pleasant rather than onerous, virtue based way. eg I use workflowy, pomodoros, and konmarie like systems a lot. I find many other systems for organizing my priorities to be unpleasant, so I don’t use them. Note I said organize my priorities, I don’t use such systems in order to try to make myself work. Once I stop thinking of these as ‘productivity systems’ I started getting tons of value out of them. That frame is propaganda for an internal fight that it’s better to get a ceasefire on rather than developing ever more powerful weapons for.
  4. Noticing negative self talk and not putting up with it. Internal parts that are motivated to get something can engage respectfully with other parts/values or they can be ignored. This got more subtle as I got better at it. I went from noticing explicitly violent internal moves (yelling, shaming, etc.) to noticing that parts use things like hypnotic binding, misleading choice of words to frame issues etc. Your parts are as smart as you because they are you. (sometimes they seem smarter because systems arrived at via selection don’t have to stick to a particular abstraction level the way explicitly planned ones do)
  5. Internalizing the core framework of coherence therapy and Immunity to Change by Kegan: that your current bugs/negative emotions/etc. are trying to help you and if you don’t acknowledge the important job they are doing any fighting you do against them likely won’t work. Or in other words, akrasia is self healing unless you figure out the ways your current coping strategies are helping you get your needs met and you find alternate ways.
  6. I don’t know what to call this one that won’t induce an eye roll. To paraphrase Lama Yeshe: ‘I am not telling you to help others as some sort of virtuous commandment. I am saying that from a 100% selfish standpoint you should try out focusing on the needs of others. Try it for 3 weeks, and honestly evaluate if your life is better. If not, you never have to do it again. But it will likely be impossible not to notice how much better things go when you get in the habit of keeping a lookout for ways you can assist others in their positive goals. No one is telling you to give up your critical faculties and be taken advantage of. And you’ll find that your paranoia was unwarranted.’ I’ll note that if you are secretly keeping a tally of how people owe you you are not doing the thing. This might be semi-involuntary and take conscious effort to drop. Others might be wary as they suspect you of angling for some advantage. Let them in on the secret that you are being selfish. Those you genuinely enjoy helping and those you don’t will work itself out naturally.
  7. My attention span has improved dramatically as a result of significantly reduced use of super stimuli (news feeds, video games, pornography, super stimulating foods, hero’s journey fiction, hyper attention grabbing style music, frequency of hamster pellet checks (fb, email, messaging, etc.), video binging) and the resulting free time is shocking.
  8. Schematizing everything. This is an improvement not to normal mental tools but to the mental toolbox. Collecting schematic workflows that other tools can be plugged in to for specific tasks. There are far fewer of these and they assist in the mental availability of the correct mental tools because they have what Eugene Gendlin calls a ‘specific’ or ‘sharp’ blank. ie a blank that knows what it is looking for (what was that word? no that’s not it etc.). Ever wonder why you can remember thousands of words but not 100 mental tools? Because you have a rich associational web for your words (connotation space) but not one for mental tools. This starts fixing that. The sooner you start the better.
  9. Noting (outlined here)
  10. Rituals make your life more like Groundhog Day. Mainly used for the meta-habits of setting intentions around other habits and doing reflection. A morning and evening routine is very worth it. It will repeatedly fail, you have to keep iterating so it fits your current life.
  11. Climbing out of the valley of bad meta of believing if I just installed the correct set of mental tools and habits that things would magically fall into place at some indeterminate point in the future. Realizing that I can’t use the outputs of other people’s processes as my process (as you would be doing if you tried to instantiate this list as a set of processes rather than using it as inspiration to examine your own life more closely)
  12. Meta: carefully investigating motivation, prioritizing, meaning, the concept of ‘carefully investigating’, goals, systems, mental tools, mental states, search strategies, what counts as an explanation, tacit vs explicit, procedural vs declarative, and others.

Here are Romeo’s other posts on LessWrong. Thanks to Andy McKenzie for the pointer.

Low-Pressure Requests for Intro

A friend asked me via email if I’d be open to introducing him to another busy friend of mine. He then wrote:

If you are willing, and feel you could recommend a meeting with sincerity, then I’d be most grateful for an introduction. And if you have the slightest hesitation, please do nothing. In my mind, the latter choice is the default, so please know I have zero expectations.

I really liked the way he put this. It feels very low pressure. I’m going to start using the phrase “If you have the slightest hesitation, please do nothing….please know I have zero expectations.”

Asking Acquaintances About Mutual Friends

All business is people business ultimately, and so improving your ability to size someone up should be a relentless priority — it is for me, anyway. By “size a person up” I mean figuring out how much you trust a person, how you can best collaborate with him, whether you’d hire her, whether you should fire him.

One of the simple ways I size a person up is by understanding how they understand and judge other people. In this way, I start to be build a model of the person I’m getting to know. I get to know their likes and dislikes, their biases, their underlying motivations, and of course their meta ability to evaluate people — all by hearing them talk about friends I know well.

Practically speaking, when I meet someone new, I like to ask them about someone we know in common. “So how do you know Jane?” Sure, it’s a trite question. But it can lead to a substantive exchange. It doesn’t have to be gossip. How has this person partnered with Jane? What’s frustrated him about Jane? What have been the delights?

When you ask someone to talk about their relationship with someone else, they often inadvertently reveal a lot about who they are.

At a breakfast meeting, I once asked an acquaintance — who I was also evaluating as a prospective business partner — to describe how he knew a mutual friend. As I probed, I realized this acquaintance spoke in condescending, patriarchal terms about a person who I very much considered his peer. It was revealing. I may not have gotten a glimpse at this element of his oversized ego if we had not gone down this path.

In another case, by talking about mutual friends I realized the person I was speaking to grasped subtleties about a friend’s personality that I had missed, and it made me all the more excited about partnering with him because of his extraordinary ability to make sense of at least one complicated person — and likely many others.

Bottom Line: Get to know someone new by asking him or her about someone you already know well.

Knowledge Accumulates Over Generations

One of the central takeaways from Chuck Klosterman’s book is that throughout history many well-verified “truths” about how the world works have, in time, been proven wrong. He provocatively asks: Which assumptions about the world do we hold dear today that subsequent generations, benefitting from greater scientific discovery, will laugh at?

You can learn this lesson vividly in the arena of building engineering and home repair, as I have.

Consider a building structure that was originally built 100 years ago but has been updated over time. An engineer will inspect the building and say, “Oh, that foundation work utilized a technique that was common in 1980.” Or: “That way of supporting a second story addition was popular in the 70’s.” A specific building technique is easily timestamped based on the prevailing knowledge at that time. With the punch line being: There’s a different best practice today. “In 2017, we do it differently.” And, usually (but not always) — it’s a better technique.

It’s inspiring to see how building engineers continue to iterate their approach. And it occurred that it’d be amusing if management consultants similarly couched their advice in before-and-after timestamped language. “That way of doing performance management was popular in the 80’s, but we know better now.” “Structuring your decision making that way was popular in the 90’s, but we know better now.”

###

Related, somewhat of a counterpoint: The always provocative Robin Hanson says one of the big neglected problems in the world is that each generation has to re-learn lessons during its individual lifetimes.

Neglected Big Problems

Book Short: The Checklist Manifesto

Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto is a wonderfully engaging summation of how the world has become so complex, and how to use checklists — yes, a simple to-do checklist — to manage the complexity that underlies modern professions.

The surgery room is the primary setting for the book’s examples, Gawande’s own vocation of course, but there are also useful stories from the worlds of building construction, aviation, and Wall Street trading.

Here’s Derek Sivers’ detailed summary of the book.