What I’ve Been Reading

Books in brief.

1. Netherland: A Novel by Joseph O’Neill. A post 9/11 novel about all sorts of things, using cricket as central metaphor. A very competently written book (highly praised by the critics) with many interesting musings on life. I was engaged through to the end. My three favorite paragraphs below.

One night I went out with Appleby to a bar on the Lower East Side, anxious to talk about Rivera’s fate and scheme in his favor. Appleby, however, had arranged to meet up with friends. He passed the evening telling them jokes I couldn’t quite hear or get, and from time to time they stepped out onto the sidewalk to smoke cigarettes and make calls to carousers elsewhere in the city, returning with reports of parties in Williamsburg and SoHo and, as the night whirled away, leaving me on the rim of things. I drank up and left them to it.

No, it was simply that I was uninterested in making, as I saw it, a Xerox of some old emotional state. I was in my mid-thirties, with a marriage more or less behind me. I was no longer vulnerable to curiosity’s enormous momentum. I had nothing new to murmur to another on the subject of myself and not the smallest eagerness about being briefed on Danielle’s supposedly unique trajectory—a curve described under the action, one could safely guess, of the usual material and maternal and soulful longings, a few thwarting tics of character, and luck good and bad. A life seemed like an old story.

There came a moment, not long after the Danielle episode and in the first stimuli of spring, when I was taken by lightheaded yearning for an interlude of togetherness, a time-out, as it were, during which my still-wife and I might lie together in a Four Seasons suite, say, and work idly through a complimentary fruit basket and fuck at leisure and, most important, have hours-long, disinterested, beans-spilling, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may conversations in which we’d examine each other’s unknown nooks and crannies in the best of humor and faith.

2. Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond. A fine, if not especially revelatory, examination of how we perceive the nature of time. A great topic but doesn’t quite support a whole book. Some good nuggets, though.

Even memories of unique, personally momentous events can fade. Most of what we do is forgotten. When we talk about the study of memory, really it should be the study of forgetting. Every day we experience hundreds of moments that we simply forget

Once again William James summed it up for us, ‘In general time filled with varied and interesting experiences seems short in passing, but long as we look back. On the other hand, a tract of time empty of experiences seems long in passing, but in retrospect short.’

The days are full of new experiences and while their parents rush them to school they want to take every opportunity to explore the world. They will stop and stare at workers digging up the road; they will pause to pat a dog; they will notice anything that’s different; they will try new things. Why walk along the pavement when you can hopscotch along avoiding the cracks in the paving stones or pick your way up and down the crenellations on a wall? This means that overall, despite a few slow hours where they’re forced to do something boring, on the whole days for children, just like ours on holiday, are all-absorbing, and packed with new memories which, looking back retrospectively, makes the months and years seem to stretch out.

If you feel you are someone who takes on too much (and this might not apply to you – I’m not saying everybody should turn down every request), then before you commit to an event later in the year, imagine it is happening next week. If it seems out of the question that you could fit it in, then ask yourself what steps you would need to take to be free to do it in six months’ time, remembering once again that you are unlikely to have more free time. By imagining it is next week you are more likely to consider the practical feasibility of the whole event,

Research has found that anticipation is associated with stronger emotions than remembering the past, so if we want to improve our well-being maybe we should pay less attention to the pleasures of nostalgia and more to anticipating positive events in the future.

‘Time rushes towards us with its hospital tray of infinitely varied narcotics, even while it is preparing us for its inevitably fatal operation.’ Tennessee Williams

3. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. Couldn’t make it far in this one. I enjoy random Alan Watts quotes but apparently couldn’t get into him in full length. My favorite paragraph of the little that I read:

This, then, is the human problem: there is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain. By remembering the past we can plan for the future. But the ability to plan for pleasure is offset by the “ability” to dread pain and to fear the unknown.

4. Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. The premise of this book is captivating: when confronted with a life threatening situation, 90% of people freeze up and make horrible decisions (leading to death), 10% stay calm and survive. What do the 10% do exactly, and can we learn to do the same if we one day find ourselves in peril? Gonzales doesn’t deliver on the potential of this question, and it may not be his fault. What the 10% do is hard to concretely figure out (beyond obvious lessons like “Be decisive”), let alone really learn for yourself. The storytelling here is pretty good (and frequently tragic in nature). I read about half of the book before deciding to move on. Recommended for outdoorsmen or folks who find themselves braving the great outdoors regularly; for the lay reader it’s probably not worth it.

5. Empire Falls by Richard Russo. A modern classic. It’s a novel, though written 15 years ago, that resonates strongly in 2014 — it reveals how a small manufacturing town in America fares in an economy that no longer supports small manufacturing towns. Amidst a backdrop of economic malaise and a flight of the town’s best talent, Russo creates rich characters and a compelling social dynamic between them.

Max unzipped there and reflected that a good, long, soul-cleansing pee was something many men his age were incapable of. Once they turned seventy, they became leaky faucets with slow, incessant drips.

In the deepest sense, he hadn’t loved her. Not the way he’d intended to. Not as he’d sworn he would before God and family and friends, and this simple truth embarrassed him too deeply to allow for anything like analysis. No, he hadn’t loved her, and he didn’t know why. He also didn’t know what to call whatever it was that would’ve prevented him from telling her, even if he had known. If you didn’t call it love, what did you call the kind of affection that makes you want to protect someone from hurt? What was the name of the feeling that threatened to swamp him now, that made him want to take her in his arms and tell her that everything would be all right. If not love, then what?

but you were clever enough to avoid what you feared most, which was a poor crippled young woman, who was suicidally in love with you and whose pitiful devotion would’ve made your life one long, hellish exercise in moral virtue.”

My God, he couldn’t help thinking, how terrible it is to be that age, to have emotions so near the surface that the slightest turbulence causes them to boil over. That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about—acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply. Out of sight and, whenever possible, out of mind.

To his surprise, she leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, a kiss so full of affection that it dispelled the awkwardness, even as it caused Miles’s heart to plummet, because all kisses are calibrated and this one revealed the great chasm between affection and love.

One of the odd things about middle age, he concluded, was the strange decisions a man discovers he’s made by not really making them, like allowing friends to drift away through simple neglect.

There’d still be a good television and one shitty one. The only difference was that what people had thought of as the good big one now would become the shitty little one. Worse, the quickest way to beget a new desire, Bea knew, was to satisfy an old one, and each new desire had a way of becoming more expensive than the last.

6. China Airborne by James Fallows. A brisk, fun report on the state of aviation in China, and what it says about China more generally. For airplane junkies only.

7. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. Some interesting nuggets here about how artists organize their day–when they wake up, how they work, when they take breaks, etc. It doesn’t take long before you re-learn that everyone is different. No, you don’t have to be a morning person to be an artist (thank God!). I didn’t feel like I needed to finish it. I liked this nugget:

“He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.”

Book Review: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

In 2009, I reviewed at length Mohsin Hamid’s book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, where I noted that the book so captivated me that I spent a whole day reading it instead of exploring the Afro-Caribbean streets of Cartagena, Colombia where I happened to be at the time.

Last week, I read Hamid’s latest novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, lying next to a pool in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Once again, Hamid kept me adhered to my chair, as evidenced by the picture to the right.book

It’s a rags-to-riches story of a boy who’s born in a poor village who transforms himself into a big city entrepreneur-mogul.

As a piece of writing, Hamid is masterful. His effortless use of the second person voice — rare in novels — increases the sense of urgency while reading. He can also bring characters to life with an efficient dash of a paragraph, which is how the book clocks in at a brisk 200 pages or so and yet still feels deep.

Three big picture themes especially resonated with me.

The first theme is the simple entrepreneurial hustle required in a dirty, somewhat dangerous, fast moving emerging market. The self-help structure is a parody, but effectively conveys the underlying truth which is that only relentless do-anything go-getter win in “Rising Asia.” (The namelessness of places and people – “Rising Asia” is the setting of the book, “you” the protagonist, and “Pretty Girl” the main romantic interest – permits readers to interpret its various lessons as broadly as possible.)

The second theme that resonated is the relationship between romance and careerism. The protagonist’s marriage falls apart because of his relentless focus on his career. And the real object of his sexual desires is not his wife but another girl who also happens to be obsessed with her career, and therefore stays firmly single despite an occasional hotel rendezvous together. Two careerists do not a couple make.

Third, I learned that the humanity of a person gets brought into relief from the juxtaposition of flaws and virtues. For example, in this book, the protagonist entrepreneur essentially misleads customers about the authenticity of his product; bribes government officials; hires employee based on nepotism; and commits other unethical or unwise acts. Yet he somehow maintains your sympathy throughout. Why? His flaws are rationalized with an air of reasonableness, and he maintains several other virtues besides. Real people tend to be a bundle of the good and bad and complicated shades of both all at the same time. Skilled writers direct a wide lens to capture this nuance–we see flaw and virtue together, and it reminds us of ourselves, and makes the whole story feel relatable.

This was a novel that was not easy to put down, and it will not be easy to forget.

Favorite paragraphs excerpted below.

Continue reading

Books: “Average is Over” and “The Second Machine Age”

Average is Over by Tyler Cowen was published a couple months ago; The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee will be published a couple weeks from now. I’ve read both and together they provide a persuasive account of how our economy is changing (due to technology and globalization) and who in the labor market will survive and thrive in an era where “average is over.” There are various summaries available.

For individual readers (as opposed to policy makers), you can think of the two books as prequels to The Start-Up of You. In The Start-Up of You, we provide practical advice on how to make yourself more adaptable, how to take risks, how to market yourself, how to grow your network–in a word, how to make yourself more entrepreneurial. Tyler, Erik, and Andy all assert that individuals will need to do these sorts of things to survive in a more challenging labor market, but they don’t have time to get into the details. (They focus more on the macro trends and implications, which are quite important in their own right.) So for enterprising individuals who want to understand the economy they’re living in and specific advice that should follow from this understanding, consider all three excellent books!

Book Review: Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Nassim Taleb is provocative. I’ve read all his books, and enjoyed his most recent book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. While the “antifragile” thesis didn’t rock my world as a general framework — I agree with it and it’s certainly novel, but I just didn’t find it41F8iht8SoL revolutionary or especially practical — the various side points and examples throughout made it very worthwhile reading overall.

My favorite 80 paragraphs below, with my favorite sentences bolded.


Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry: anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.

It does not mean that one’s personal experiences constitute a sufficient sample to derive a conclusion about an idea; it is just that one’s personal experience gives the stamp of authenticity and sincerity of opinion. Experience is devoid of the cherry-picking that we find in studies, particularly those called “observational,” ones in which the researcher finds past patterns, and, thanks to the sheer amount of data, can therefore fall into the trap of an invented narrative.

Just as being nice to the arrogant is no better than being arrogant toward the nice, being accommodating toward anyone committing a nefarious action condones it.

A boxer might be robust, hale when it comes to his physical condition, and might improve from fight to fight, but he can easily be emotionally fragile and break into tears when dumped by his girlfriend. Your grandmother might have opposite qualities, fragile in build but equipped with a strong personality. I remember the following vivid image from the Lebanese civil war: A diminutive old lady, a widow (she was dressed in black), was chastising militiamen from the enemy side for having caused the shattering of the glass in her window during a battle. They were pointing their guns at her; a single bullet would have terminated her but they were visibly having a bad moment, intimidated and scared by her. She was the opposite of the boxer: physically fragile, but not fragile in character.

Also, it is a well-known trick that if you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second busiest) person in the office. Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy, and unmotivated—the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks. Overcompensation, here again.

Information is antifragile; it feeds more on attempts to harm it than it does on efforts to promote it.

The first-order information is the intensity: what matters is the effort the critic puts into trying to prevent others from reading the book, or, more generally in life, it is the effort in badmouthing someone that matters, not so much what is said. So if you really want people to read a book, tell them it is “overrated,” with a sense of outrage (and use the attribute “underrated” for the opposite effect).

The tradition has been to think that aging causes bone weakness (bones lose density, become more brittle), as if there was a one-way relationship possibly brought about by hormones (females start experiencing osteoporosis after menopause). It turns out, as shown by Karsenty and others who have since embarked on the line of research, that the reverse is also largely true: loss of bone density and degradation of the health of the bones also causes aging, diabetes, and, for males, loss of fertility and sexual function.

So it is often the mistakes of others that benefit the rest of us—and, sadly, not them. We saw that stressors are information, in the right context. For the antifragile, harm from errors should be less than the benefits. We are talking about some, not all, errors, of course; those that do not destroy a system help prevent larger calamities. The engineer and historian of engineering Henry Petroski presents a very elegant point. Had the Titanic not had that famous accident, as fatal as it was, we would have kept building larger and larger ocean liners and the next disaster would have been even more tragic. So the people who perished were sacrificed for the greater good; they unarguably saved more lives than were lost. The story of the Titanic illustrates the difference between gains for the system and harm to some of its individual parts.

There are hundreds of thousands of plane flights every year, and a crash in one plane does not involve others, so errors remain confined and highly epistemic—whereas globalized economic systems operate as one: errors spread and compound.

Further, my characterization of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on. These types often consider themselves the “victims” of some large plot, a bad boss, or bad weather. Finally, a thought. He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has only sinned once. And someone who has made plenty of errors—though never the same error more than once—is more reliable than someone who has never made any.

In order to progress, modern society should be treating ruined entrepreneurs in the same way we honor dead soldiers, perhaps not with as much honor, but using exactly the same logic (the entrepreneur is still alive, though perhaps morally broken and socially stigmatized, particularly if he lives in Japan). For there is no such thing as a failed soldier, dead or alive (unless he acted in a cowardly manner)—likewise, there is no such thing as a failed entrepreneur or failed scientific researcher, any more than there is a successful babbler, philosophaster, commentator, consultant, lobbyist, or business school professor who does not take personal risks. (Sorry.)

We are fragilizing social and economic systems by denying them stressors and randomness, putting them in the Procrustean bed of cushy and comfortable—but ultimately harmful—modernity.

This great variety of people and their wallets are there, in Switzerland, for its shelter, safety, and stability. But all these refugees don’t notice the obvious: the most stable country in the world does not have a government. And it is not stable in spite of not having a government; it is stable because it does not have one. Ask random Swiss citizens to name their president, and count the proportion of people who can do so—they can usually name the presidents of France or the United States but not their own. Its currency works best (at the time of writing it proved to be the safest), yet its central bank is tiny, even relative to its size.

Note another element of Switzerland: it is perhaps the most successful country in history, yet it has traditionally had a very low level of university education compared to the rest of the rich nations. Its system, even in banking during my days, was based on apprenticeship models, nearly vocational rather than the theoretical ones. In other words, on techne (crafts and know how), not episteme (book knowledge, know what).

We can also see from the turkey story the mother of all harmful mistakes: mistaking absence of evidence (of harm) for evidence of absence, a mistake that we will see tends to prevail in intellectual circles and one that is grounded in the social sciences.

Some people have fallen for the naive turkey-style belief that the world is getting safer and safer, and of course they naively attribute it to the holy “state” (though bottom-up Switzerland has about the lowest rate of violence of any place on the planet). It is exactly like saying that nuclear bombs are safer because they explode less often. The world is subjected to fewer and fewer acts of violence, while wars have the potential to be more criminal. We were very close to the mother of all catastrophes in the 1960s when the United States was about to pull the nuclear trigger on the Soviet Union. Very close. When we look at risks in Extremistan, we don’t look at evidence (evidence comes too late), we look at potential damage: never has the world been more prone to more damage; never.6 It is hard to explain to naive data-driven people that risk is in the future, not in the past.

A donkey equally famished and thirsty caught at an equal distance between food and water would unavoidably die of hunger or thirst. But he can be saved thanks to a random nudge one way or the other. This metaphor is named Buridan’s Donkey, after the medieval philosopher Jean de Buridan, who—among other, very complicated things—introduced the thought experiment. When some systems are stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free. You can see here that absence of randomness equals guaranteed death.

the bitterness of Iranians toward the United States comes from the fact that the United States—a democracy—installed a monarch, the repressive Shah of Iran, who pillaged the place but gave the United States the “stability” of access to the Persian Gulf.

It is generally accepted that harm from doctors—not including risks from hospital germs—accounts for more deaths than any single cancer.

There is an element of deceit associated with interventionism, accelerating in a professionalized society. It’s much easier to sell “Look what I did for you” than “Look what I avoided for you.” Of course a bonus system based on “performance” exacerbates the problem. I’ve looked in history for heroes who became heroes for what they did not do, but it is hard to observe nonaction; I could not easily find any. The doctor who refrains from operating on a back (a very expensive surgery), instead giving it a chance to heal itself, will not be rewarded and judged as favorably as the doctor who makes the surgery look indispensable, then brings relief to the patient while exposing him to operating risks, while accruing great financial rewards to himself. The latter will be driving the pink Rolls-Royce.

The Chinese thinker Lao Tzu coined the doctrine of wu-wei, “passive achievement.”

If you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor. I don’t mean provide him with a bad doctor: just pay for him to choose his own. Any doctor will do. This may be the only possible way to murder someone while staying squarely within the law. We can see from the tonsillectomy story that access to data increases intervention, causing us to behave like the neurotic fellow. Rory Sutherland signaled to me that someone with a personal doctor on staff should be particularly vulnerable to naive interventionism, hence iatrogenics; doctors need to justify their salaries and prove to themselves that they have a modicum of work ethic, something that “doing nothing” doesn’t satisfy. Indeed, Michael Jackson’s personal doctor has been sued for something equivalent to overintervention-to-stifle-antifragility (but it will take the law courts a while to become directly familiar with the concept). Did you ever wonder why heads of state and very rich people with access to all this medical care die just as easily as regular persons? Well, it looks like this is because of overmedication and excessive medical care.

Consider the iatrogenics of newspapers. They need to fill their pages every day with a set of news items—particularly those news items also dealt with by other newspapers. But to do things right, they ought to learn to keep silent in the absence of news of significance. Newspapers should be of two-line length on some days, two hundred pages on others—in proportion with the intensity of the signal. But of course they want to make money and need to sell us junk food. And junk food is iatrogenic.

The state exists as a tax collector, but the money is spent in the communes themselves, directed by the communes—for, say, skills training locally determined as deemed necessary by the community themselves, to respond to private demand for workers. The economic elites have more freedom than in most other democracies—this is far from the statism one can assume from the outside.

Now, what is worse, because of modernity, the share of Extremistan is increasing. Winner-take-all effects are worsening: success for an author, a company, an idea, a musician, an athlete is planetary, or nothing. These worsen predictability since almost everything in socioeconomic life now is dominated by Black Swans.

The traditional understanding of Stoicism in the literature is of some indifference to fate—among other ideas of harmony with the cosmos that I will skip here. It is about continuously degrading the value of earthly possessions. When Zeno of Kition, the founder of the school of Stoicism, suffered a shipwreck (a lot of shipwrecks in ancient texts), he declared himself lucky to be unburdened so he could now do philosophy. And the key phrase reverberating in Seneca’s oeuvre is nihil perditi, “I lost nothing,” after an adverse event. Stoicism makes you desire the challenge of a calamity. And Stoics look down on luxury: about a fellow who led a lavish life, Seneca wrote: “He is in debt, whether he borrowed from another person or from fortune.”

Success brings an asymmetry: you now have a lot more to lose than to gain. You are hence fragile.

Seneca fathomed that possessions make us worry about downside, thus acting as a punishment as we depend on them. All upside, no downside. Even more: dependence on circumstances—rather, the emotions that arise from circumstances—induces a form of slavery.

Let me rephrase it in modern terms. Take the situation in which you have a lot to lose and little to gain. If an additional quantity of wealth, say, a thousand Phoenician shekels, would not benefit you, but you would feel great harm from the loss of an equivalent amount, you have an asymmetry. And it is not a good asymmetry: you are fragile.

Seneca’s practical method to counter such fragility was to go through mental exercises to write off possessions, so when losses occurred he would not feel the sting—a way to wrest one’s freedom from circumstances. It is similar to buying an insurance contract against losses. For instance, Seneca often started his journeys with almost the same belongings he would have if he were shipwrecked, which included a blanket to sleep on the ground, as inns were sparse at the time (though I need to qualify, to set things in the context of the day, that he had accompanying him “only one or two slaves”).

For those readers who wonder about the difference between Buddhism and Stoicism, I have a simple answer. A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude, one who says “f*** you” to fate.

This is what Seneca elected to do: he initially had a very active, adventurous life, followed by a philosophical withdrawal to write and meditate, rather than a “middle” combination of both. Many of the “doers” turned “thinkers” like Montaigne have done a serial barbell: pure action, then pure reflection.

Indeed, Georges Simenon, one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, only wrote sixty days a year, with three hundred days spent “doing nothing.” He published more than two hundred novels.

More barbells. Do crazy things (break furniture once in a while), like the Greeks during the later stages of a drinking symposium, and stay “rational” in larger decisions. Trashy gossip magazines and classics or sophisticated works; never middlebrow stuff. Talk to either undergraduate students, cab drivers, and gardeners or the highest caliber scholars; never to middling-but-career-conscious academics. If you dislike someone, leave him alone or eliminate him; don’t attack him verbally.

What he collected was large, perhaps not enough to make him massively wealthy, but enough to make the point—to others but also, I suspect, to himself—that he talked the talk and was truly above, not below, wealth. This kind of sum I’ve called in my vernacular “f*** you money”—a sum large enough to get most, if not all, of the advantages of wealth (the most important one being independence and the ability to only occupy your mind with matters that interest you) but not its side effects, such as having to attend a black-tie charity event and being forced to listen to a polite exposition of the details of a marble-rich house renovation. The worst side effect of wealth is the social associations it forces on its victims, as people with big houses tend to end up socializing with other people with big houses. Beyond a certain level of opulence and independence, gents tend to be less and less personable and their conversation less and less interesting.

The option I am talking about is no different from what we call options in daily life—the vacation resort with the most options is more likely to provide you with the activity that satisfies your tastes, and the one with the narrowest choices is likely to fail. So you need less information, that is, less knowledge, about the resort with broader options.

Sour grapes—as in Aesop’s fable—is when someone convinces himself that the grapes he cannot reach are sour. The essayist Michel de Montaigne sees the Thales episode as a story of immunity to sour grapes: you need to know whether you do not like the pursuit of money and wealth because you genuinely do not like it, or because you are rationalizing your inability to be successful at it with the argument that wealth is not a good thing because it is bad for one’s digestive system or disturbing for one’s sleep or other such arguments.

Again, this is an embedded option, hidden as there is no cost to the privilege.

Authors, artists, and even philosophers are much better off having a very small number of fanatics behind them than a large number of people who appreciate their work. The number of persons who dislike the work don’t count—there is no such thing as the opposite of buying your book, or the equivalent of losing points in a soccer game, and this absence of negative domain for book sales provides the author with a measure of optionality.

Wittgenstein, for instance, was largely considered a lunatic, a strange bird, or just a b***t operator by those whose opinion didn’t count (he had almost no publications to his name). But he had a small number of cultlike followers, and some, such as Bertrand Russell and J. M. Keynes, were massively influential.

Another business that does not care about the average but rather the dispersion around the average is the luxury goods industry—jewelry, watches, art, expensive apartments in fancy locations, expensive collector wines, gourmet farm-raised probiotic dog food, etc. Such businesses only care about the pool of funds available to the very rich. If the population in the Western world had an average income of fifty thousand dollars, with no inequality at all, luxury goods sellers would not survive. But if the average stays the same but with a high degree of inequality, with some incomes higher than two million dollars, and potentially some incomes higher than ten million, then the business has plenty of customers—even if such high incomes are offset by masses of people with lower incomes. The “tails” of the distribution on the higher end of the income brackets, the extreme, are much more determined by changes in inequality than changes in the average. It gains from dispersion, hence is antifragile.

Harvard’s former president Larry Summers got in trouble (clumsily) explaining a version of the point and lost his job in the aftermath of the uproar. He was trying to say that males and females have equal intelligence, but the male population has more variations and dispersion (hence volatility), with more highly unintelligent men, and more highly intelligent ones. For Summers, this explained why men were overrepresented in the scientific and intellectual community (and also why men were overrepresented in jails or failures). The number of successful scientists depends on the “tails,” the extremes, rather than the average. Just as an option does not care about the adverse outcomes, or an author does not care about the haters.

growth in society may not come from raising the average the Asian way, but from increasing the number of people in the “tails,” that small, very small number of risk takers crazy enough to have ideas of their own, those endowed with that very rare ability called imagination, that rarer quality called courage, and who make things happen.

Most texts define it as the application of scientific knowledge to practical projects—leading us to believe in a flow of knowledge going chiefly, even exclusively, from lofty “science” (organized around a priestly group of persons with titles before their names) to lowly practice (exercised by uninitiated people without the intellectual attainments to gain membership into the priestly group). So, in the corpus, knowledge is presented as derived in the following manner: basic research yields scientific knowledge, which in turn generates technologies, which in turn lead to practical applications, which in turn lead to economic growth and other seemingly interesting matters.

Academia → Applied Science and Technology → Practice While this model may be valid in some very narrow (but highly advertised instances), such as building the atomic bomb, the exact reverse seems to be true in most of the domains I’ve examined.

As per the Yiddish saying: “If the student is smart, the teacher takes the credit.” These illusions of contribution result largely from confirmation fallacies: in addition to the sad fact that history belongs to those who can write about it (whether winners or losers), a second bias appears, as those who write the accounts can deliver confirmatory facts (what has worked) but not a complete picture of what has worked and what has failed.

If life is lived forward but remembered backward, as Kierkegaard observed, then books exacerbate this effect—our own memories, learning, and instinct have sequences in them. Someone standing today looking at events without having lived them would be inclined to develop illusions of causality, mostly from being mixed-up by the sequence of events. In real life, in spite of all the biases, we do not have the same number of asynchronies that appear to the student of history. Nasty history, full of lies, full of biases!

shows no evidence that raising the general level of education raises income at the level of a country. But we know the opposite is true, that wealth leads to the rise of education—not an optical illusion. We don’t need to resort to the World Bank figures, we could derive this from an armchair.

Entrepreneurs, particularly those in technical jobs, are not necessarily the best people to have dinner with. I recall a heuristic I used in my previous profession when hiring people (called “separate those who, when they go to a museum, look at the Cézanne on the wall from those who focus on the contents of the trash can”): the more interesting their conversation, the more cultured they are, the more they will be trapped into thinking that they are effective at what they are doing in real business (something psychologists call the halo effect, the mistake of thinking that skills in, say, skiing translate unfailingly into skills in managing a pottery workshop or a bank department, or that a good chess player would be a good strategist in real life).1 Clearly, it is unrigorous to equate skills at doing with skills at talking. My experience of good practitioners is that they can be totally incomprehensible—they do not have to put much energy into turning their insights and internal coherence into elegant style and narratives. Entrepreneurs are selected to be just doers, not thinkers, and doers do, they don’t talk, and it would be unfair, wrong, and downright insulting to measure them in the talk department.

We all learn geometry from textbooks based on axioms, like, say, Euclid’s Book of Elements, and tend to think that it is thanks to such learning that we today have these beautiful geometric shapes in buildings, from houses to cathedrals; to think the opposite would be anathema. So I speculated immediately that the ancients developed an interest in Euclid’s geometry and other mathematics because they were already using these methods, derived by tinkering and experiential knowledge, otherwise they would not have bothered at all.

Coca-Cola began as a pharmaceutical product. Tiffany & Co., the fancy jewelry store company, started life as a stationery store. The last two examples are close, perhaps, but consider next: Raytheon, which made the first missile guidance system, was a refrigerator maker (one of the founders was no other than Vannevar Bush, who conceived the teleological linear model of science we saw earlier; go figure). Now, worse: Nokia, who used to be the top mobile phone maker, began as a paper mill (at some stage they were into rubber shoes). DuPont, now famous for Teflon nonstick cooking pans, Corian countertops, and the durable fabric Kevlar, actually started out as an explosives company. Avon, the cosmetics company, started out in door-to-door book sales. And, the strangest of all, Oneida Silversmiths was a community religious cult but for regulatory reasons they needed to use as cover a joint stock company.

We will return to these two distinct payoffs, with “bounded left” (limited losses, like Thales’ bet) and “bounded right” (limited gains, like insurance or banking). The distinction is crucial, as most payoffs in life fall in either one or the other category.

Seeing the nontransferability of skills from one domain to the other led me to skepticism in general about whatever skills are acquired in a classroom, anything in a non-ecological way, as compared to street fights and real-life situations. It is not well advertised that there is no evidence that abilities in chess lead to better reasoning off the chessboard—even those who play blind chess games with an entire cohort can’t remember things outside the board better than a regular person. We accept the domain-specificity of games, the fact that they do not really train you for life, that there are severe losses in translation. But we find it hard to apply this lesson to technical skills acquired in schools, that is, to accept the crucial fact that what is picked up in the classroom stays largely in the classroom. Worse even, the classroom can bring some detectable harm, a measure of iatrogenics hardly ever discussed: Laura Martignon showed me results from her doctoral student Birgit Ulmer demonstrating that children’s ability to count degrades right after they are taught arithmetic. When you ask children how many intervals there are between fifteen poles, those who don’t know arithmetic figure out that there are fourteen of them. Those who studied arithmetic get confused and often make the mistake that there are fifteen.

The biologist and intellectual E. O. Wilson was once asked what represented the most hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the soccer mom. He did not use the notion of the Procrustean bed, but he outlined it perfectly. His argument is that they repress children’s natural biophilia, their love of living things. But the problem is more general; soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children’s lives, move them away from the ecological and transform them into nerds working on preexisting (soccer-mom-compatible) maps of reality.

“What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent” is perhaps the most potent sentence in all of Nietzsche’s century—and we used a version of it in the prologue, in the very definition of the fragilista who mistakes what he does not understand for nonsense.

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Book Review: In the Plex by Steven Levy

plexSteven Levy’s 2011 book In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives is very much worth reading for anyone in or around the tech industry, or for an outsider who’s seeking an accessible description of what makes Google’s business magical. In other words, even if you know a lot about Google already, there are dozens of interesting nuggets about the creation of the various products. And if you don’t know the first thing about AdWords or why Google search is better than other services, you’ll find a jargon-free yet still sophisticated description.

My Kindle highlights from the book are below.


Google even had its own version of the Learning Annex, called Google University. Besides a number of work-related courses (“Managing Within the Law,” “Advanced Interviewing Techniques”), there were classes in creative writing, Greek mythology, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and, for those contemplating a new career funded with Google gains, “Terroir: The Geology & Wines of California.”

‘Do the right thing’ or something more positive?” she asked. Marissa and Salar agreed with her. But the geeks—Buchheit and Patel—wouldn’t budge. “Don’t be evil” pretty much said it all, as far as they were concerned. They fought off every attempt to drop it from the list. “They liked it the way it was,” Sullivan would later say with a sigh. “It was very important to engineering that they were not going to be like Microsoft, they were not going to be an evil company.”

But then Eric Schmidt revealed Google’s internal motto to a reporter from Wired. To McCaffrey, that was the moment when “Don’t be evil” got out of control and became a hammer to clobber Google’s every move. “We lost it, and I could never grasp it back,” she says. “Everybody would’ve been happy if it could’ve been this sort of silent code or little undercurrent that we secretly harbored instead of this thing that set us up for a lot of ridiculous criticism.” Elliot Schrage, who was in charge of communications and policy for Google from 2005 to 2008, concluded that “Don’t be evil” might originally have benefited the company but became “a millstone around my neck” as Google’s growth took it to controversial regions of the world.

Bo Cowgill, a Google statistician, did a series of studies of his colleagues’ behavior, based on their participation in a “prediction market,” a setup that allowed them to make bets on the success of internal projects. He discovered that “daily stock price movements affect the mood, effort level and decision-making of employees.” As you’d expect, increases in stock performance made people happier and more optimistic—but they also led them to regard innovative ideas more warily, indicating that as Googlers became richer, they became more conservative. That was exactly the downside of the IPO that the founders had dreaded.

Around 2005, Google determined a simple formula to distribute its engineering talent: 70–20–10. Seventy percent of its engineers would work in either search or ads. Twenty percent would focus on key products such as applications. The remaining 10 percent would work on wild cards, which often emerged from the 20 percent time where people could choose their own projects. For all the talk about its other, well-publicized fraction—the 20 percent of free time that supposedly gestated Google’s big innovations—70–20–10 became Google’s magic allocation algorithm.

not just to identify what one wants to do but to break down the task into measurable bites (“key results”). In his book High Output Management, Grove imagined the OKR system applied to Christopher Columbus. The explorer fell short of his objective of finding a trade route to India, but he did carry out some subsidiary OKRs: he gathered a crew; he bought supplies; he avoided pirates; and by discovering the New World, he brought riches to Spain. Doerr had Google at metrics. “Google did more than adopt it,” says Doerr. “They embraced it.” OKRs became an essential component of Google culture. Every employee had to set, and then get approval for, quarterly OKRs and annual OKRs. There were OKRs at the team level, the department level, and even the company level. (Those last were used sparingly, for important initiatives or to address gaping failures.) Four times a year, everything stopped at Google for divisionwide meetings to assess OKR progress.

What’s more, OKRs were not private benchmarks shared only with managers. They were public knowledge, as much a part of an employee’s Google identity as the job description. The OKRs appeared on every employee’s biographical information on MOMA, Google’s internal website. (The name didn’t stand for anything in particular—according to Marissa Mayer, Larry Page just wanted something fast and short and easy to type.) You could even see Larry and Sergey’s OKRs.

For a number of years, Brin and Page drew organizational and clerical support from a pool of four sharp young women known as LSA, or Larry and Sergey Assistants. (Googlers referred to LSA as if it were a single organization. You would say, “I’ll check with LSA to see if Sergey can come to this meeting.”) The system seemed to work well, but Brin and Page felt constrained. By having assistants, they noticed, it was easier for people to ask things of them. “Most people aren’t willing to ask me if they want to meet with me,” says Page. “They’re happy to ask an assistant.” When a meeting request came, an LSA would have to see if Page or Brin actually wanted to do it. In truth, the founders almost never wanted to do it. So one day, Brin and Page abruptly dissolved LSA. They would thereafter have no assistants. Whatever they felt was important at the moment would be their work. Sergey sometimes liked to move his workplace right in the middle of a project he found

Of all of Google’s secrets, this massive digital infrastructure was perhaps its most closely held. It never disclosed the number of these data centers. (According to an industry observer, Data Center Knowledge, there were twenty-four major facilities by 2009, a number Google didn’t confirm or dispute.) Google would not say how many servers it had in those centers. (Google did, however, eventually say that it is the largest computer manufacturer in the world—making its own servers requires it to build more units every year than the industry giants HP, Dell, and Lenovo. Nor did Google spokespeople deny reports that it had more than a million of those servers in operation.) And it never welcomed outsiders to peer into its data centers.

In May, the impatient YouTube founders took out an ad in craigslist offering “hot” women $100 for every ten videos they’d post displaying their charms.They set up a series of meetings at the Denny’s in Redwood City, between Mountain View and YouTube headquarters in San Mateo. The YouTubers told Schmidt that their goal was to democratize the video experience online, and they felt that the idea resonated with him—after all, wasn’t that what Google wanted to do for the whole web?

as Eric Schmidt told a reporter when asked just how Google determines the application of its famous unofficial motto, “Evil is what Sergey says is evil.”

“Just tell me it’s not Google,” said Ballmer, according to Lucovsky’s sworn testimony. Lucovsky confirmed that it was indeed Google. Lucovsky testified that Ballmer went ballistic: “Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy! I’m going to fucking bury that guy! I have done it before and I will do it again. I’m going to fucking kill Google.” (The reference to having “done it before” seemed to refer to Microsoft’s anticompetitive actions during the browser war, when Schmidt was aligned with the Netscape forces.) For good measure, Ballmer threw a chair across the room, according to Lucovsky. (Ballmer would later say that Lucovsky’s account was exaggerated, but the CEO’s denials were not made under oath.)

With nowhere else to turn—and the economic downturn making the company a less attractive takeover target—Yahoo’s new CEO, former Autodesk head Carol Bartz, arranged to turn over Yahoo’s search business to Microsoft for a bargain price of a billion dollars. Microsoft got the main prize it had sought in the merger for barely 3 percent of its original offer.)

Book Review: Breath by Breath

Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation by Larry Rosenberg is one of the better books on meditation I’ve read. It’s a terrific introduction by the founder and resident teacher of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts.breahtbybreath

The problem with most of the stuff I read on the topic is it’s either inaccessibly technical / arcane, or too new-agey and lacking in substance. Breath by Breath strikes a good balance: it seems faithful to some of the key ideas expressed by the Buddha in the original Pali language while at the same time expressing in clear English how a meditation practice functions in modern life. There are also specific instructions and tips for those looking to strengthen their practice.

The emphasis on breath continues to be the most practical aspect of my practice. I have a very subtle perception of my breath and this allows me to return to the present moment more easily.

Some other random points from the book, among many:

  • The idea is to go from “doggy mind” to a “lion mind,” in which there is deep steadiness.
  • People often take up meditation because they want to achieve or gain something; the paradox in the practice is that the best way to get “there” to be fully present “here.”
  • The first law of Buddhism is that everything is constantly changing.
  • Buddhism isn’t about beliefs. It’s about firsthand knowledge.

Thanks to Amy and Brad Feld for letting me “steal” this book from them.

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The always-interesting Robert Wright interviews Shinzen Young on Bloggingheads.tv about meditation. It’s worth watching for insights from one of the more prominent American experts on meditation. Shinzen says that when he thinks about meditation, he doesn’t call to mind the common image of someone sitting quietly in a darkened room. Rather, he thinks of someone in a gym, doing cardio, pumping weights, and making a lasting effect of the physical structure of his body. Certain formal exercises increase flexibility; others increase endurance; others build muscle strength.

Book Review: Help! by Oliver Burkeman

A few months ago I reviewed Oliver Burkeman’s recent book The Antidote, which is a powerful meditation against conventional self-help gospel and in favor of a different, darker sort of path for happiness.help

After I wrote the review, I met Oliver in New York and he gave me a copy of his earlier book entitled Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. It’s a collection of his columns in The Guardian. It’s fantastic — full of insight, cyncial quips and cheap shots, and amusing yet still very wise suggestions on how to live the good life. It’s also easy to read. Each column is a couple pages long and the topics vary quite a bit, so you can skip around without feeling guilty.

I stand by my claim that Oliver is one of the most interesting commentators on, and curators of, the vast self-help space.

Favorite quotes from the book below.



SMART goals: ‘Smart’ stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bounded, and it’s one of those acronyms that ought to make you suspicious from the outset, if only because it spells out a slightly too convenient word.

The other day, I learned of some breakthrough psychological research which proves that contributing to good causes stimulates the same part of the brain as receiving large sums of money — only more so. Giving to others, it turns out, really may be the key to happiness. About 35 minutes later, I ran into a ‘charity mugger,’ collecting for a human rights organization, and became consumed with a quasi-homicidal rage that only worsened as he trotted after me down the street, stoking fantasies of breaking his clipboard in two and dropping it into pieces at his feet. There seems to be a contradiction here. Some possible conclusions: a) my brain is hardwired wrongly; b) the psychology researchers screwed up, or c) there are only certain conditions under which giving makes you happy, and being bullied by an out-of-work actor with a goatee isn’t one of them.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: when really big crises occur, people often find inner strength; it’s the little things that drive us crazy. Deep down, we know we can escape bereavement, and maybe illness and divorce, but we think we shouldn’t have to deal with queues or irritating colleagues.

The scholar Dacher Keltner makes a powerful case that embarrassment is evolution’s answer to the ‘comittment problem’: it’s in everyone’s interests to collaborate for long-term gain, but how do you weed out the conmen who want to take advantage? Perhaps because they’re unembarassable. Embarrassment — signalled by facial microexpressions that can’t be faked and that are remarkably consistent across cultures — ‘reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us together.’ In the moment, you realize you’ve come to the restaurant without your wallet, your eyes shoot down, your head titles, a smile flickers. These are the ‘the most potent nonverbal cues we have to an individual’s commitment to the moral order.’

On a really bad day, I may spend hours stuck in angst-ridden meanderings, wondering if I need to make major changes in my life. It’s usually then that I realize I’ve forgotten to eat lunch.

Ted Huston, a University of Texas psychology professor who runs the PAIR Project, a long-term study of married couples that began in 1981. The project has reached numerous intruiging conclusions, such as that couples who are ‘particularly lovey-dovey’ as newlyweds are more likely to divorce.

We don’t know our friends nearly as well as we imagine. Research demonstrates that we tend to assume our friends agree with us — on politics, ethics, etcetera — more than they really do….Friendship may be less about being drawn to someone’s personality than about finding someone willing to endorse your sense of your own personality. In agreeing to keep your company, or lend an ear, a friend provides the ‘social-identity support’ we crave. You needn’t be a close match, nor deeply familiar with their psyche, to strike this mutual deal. And once a friendship has begun, cognitive dissonance helps keep it going: having decided that someone’s your friend, you want to like them, if only to confirm they you made the right decision. We don’t want to know everything about our fiends, Gill and Swann suggest: what we seek is ‘pragmatic accuracy.’ … Friendship as an agreement to keep each other company, overlook each other’s faults, and not probe too deeply in ways that might undermine the friendship.

“One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, ‘I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way.’ They don’t see that their behavior may be irrelevant, or worse, that they succeeded in spite of it.” - Marshall Goldsmith in his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Neil Pasricha from 1000awesomethings.com has a deep affinity for another category of pleasures, usually neglected by purveyors of pop psychology, which fall under the heading of “relief”: the joyous moment an unpleasant experience stops, or when things don’t turn out half as badly as you were expecting. Who’d dissent, for example, from Pasricha’s observation that there’s a weirdly disproportionate enjoyment, when hauling luggage or shopping, in ‘picking up something that turns out to be a lot lighter than you expected’? Or ‘dropping your cell phone on the sidewalk and then realizing it’s totally fine’? Or arriving late for a rendezvous, sweaty and exhausted, only to find the other person’s even later’?

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer. Few writers could produce brief character sketches of about a dozen or so people, break up each sketch into five or six different parts, and then spread those parts out across different Unknownchapters. Somehow, Packer manages to paint vivid pictures of his subjects — who range from a tobacco farmer to a Washington lobbyist to a Silicon Valley icon. Collectively, these portraits lead to a vivid image of what’s happening in America today. As David Brooks wrote in his thoughtful review of the book, the “unwinding” that Packer refers to has to do with three large transformations:

The first is the stagnation of middle-class wages and widening inequality. Depending on which analyst you read, this has to do with the changing nature of the information-age labor market, changing family structures, rising health care costs, the decline of unions or the failure of education levels to keep up with technology.

The second is the crushing recession that began in 2008. Depending on which analyst you read, this was caused by global capital imbalances, bad Federal Reserve policy, greed on Wall Street, faulty risk-assessment models or the insane belief that housing prices would go on rising forever.

The third transformation is the unraveling of the national fabric. Depending on which analyst you read, this is either a gigantic problem (marriage rates are collapsing; some measures of social connection are on the decline) or not a gigantic problem (crime rates are plummeting, some measures of social connection are improving).

2. Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food by Jon Krampner. I love peanut butter. When I return home from trips, one of the first things I do is eat peanut butter. I eat it before going to bed. If that’s not comfort food, I don’t know what is. So skimming this history of Jif and Skippy and the other brands was fun. Hard core fans only. I did like these sentences: “More than Mom’s apple pie, peanut butter is the all-American food. With its rich, roasted-peanut aroma and flavor, caramel hue, and gooey, consoling texture, peanut butter is an enduring favorite, found in the pantries of at least 75% of American kitchens.”

3. How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. This book is high end self-help — it asks “How to live?” and each chapter focuses on a different theme, with the insights all derived from Michel de Montaigne’s classic Essays. It’s a stimulating collection and an accessible introduction to Montaigne’s work.montainge

If you fail to grasp life, it will elude you. If you do grasp it, it will elude you anyway. So you must follow it — and “you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.”

The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience — but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are. To look insidey ourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm. The philosopher Maurice Merlau-Ponty called Montaigne a writer who put “a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.” More recently, the critic Colin Burrow has remarked that astonishment, together with Montaigne’s other key quality, fluidity, are what philosophy should be, but rarely has been, in the Western tradition.

4. Philanthrocapitalism by Matthew Bishop and Matthew Green. A solid introduction to the new generation of philanthrpists like Gates and the mega giving they are undergoing. Some good coverage of corporate philanthropy, too. Two random lessons:

  • People are motivated to give in large part due to religious faith; this explains why Americans are more charitable than Europeans (Americans are more religious) and why people on the political right give more than those on the political left.
  • Government aid usually requires broad consensus and adheres to political correctness; private philanthropy, Mike Bloomberg suggests, is unique in that it can pursue a diversity of agenda.

5. Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It by Kamal Ravikant. A very short and simple book that has generated some buzz amongst some Silicon Valley insiders. How simple? The point of the book is to tell yourself “I love myself” over and over and over again. That’s it. It’s almost laughably simple and almost certainly narcissistic. And I’m not sure I’d recommend the book. Then again, I tried it, and with some sheepishness, I must admit it does make me feel better when I’m feeling blue….

6. Fuck It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way by John Parkin. “Fuck it” is the Western expression of the Eastern idea of “let it go.” Let it go. Fuck it. Move on. Another extremely simplistic book I’m not sure I’d recommend, but kind of amusing to read in parallel with Love Yourself.

7. Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia.

consciousThis is an important book. Mackey and Sisodia present a framework for thinking about capitalism that involves multiple stakeholders and a do-good mission embedded in a for-profit structure. Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, believes we need to “liberate the heroic spirit of business” by letting free market enterprise flourish, because the businesses that themselves flourish are the ones that maintain elevated values, pursue a noble mission, and satisfy a variety of stakeholders (not just the shareholders). I expect we’ll see more and more books that seek to explain the default moral arc of capitalism.

Book Review: Sum by David Eagleman

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

sum

This was my favorite paragraph from Sum by David Eagleman, because I think the third death captures the key motivation behind so many “immortality projects” (I mean change-the-world projects) — people try to extend the time horizon by which people still utter their name on planet Earth. Your kids will, their kids will, but for how many generations beyond that will your name be spoken?

The book is a slim volume of short stories / riffs on what happens in the afterlife. With great imagination, Eagleman hypothesizes different situations, settings, interfaces. For example, perhaps in the afterlife you relive all your experiences — not chronologically, but rather grouped by the type of the experience. You spend two conesecutive months driving in front of your house; seven consecutive months having sex; four months taking out the trash; eight weeks experiencing intense pain, i.e. all the pain you experienced in your whole life condensed into eight straight weeks.  There’s nothing religious about the book. There are, though, embedded within, quite a few lessons and perspectives on how we lead our lives while still breathing.

Sum is some of the most inventive short fiction I’ve read in a long while. Recommended.

Book Review: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

At Renaissance Weekend a few months ago, I heard a phenomenal lecture by Michael Starbird, a mathematician at the University of Texas. Afterwards, I bought his book, co-authored with Williams College professor Edward Burger, called The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.effective

It’s a very short, lively book that persuasively makes the case that there are learnable general skills that contribute to clear thinking and effective problem solving. The four elements they highlight are:

Understand deeply: Don’t face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in. Let go of bias, prejudice, and preconceived notions. There are degrees to understanding (it’s not just a yes-or-no proposition) and you can always heighten yours. Rock-solid understanding is the foundation for success. Make mistakes: Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right.

Make mistakes: Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers— they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.

Raise questions: Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What’s the real question? Working on the wrong questions can waste a lifetime. Ideas are in the air— the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible.

Follow the flow of ideas: Look back to see where ideas came from and then look ahead to discover where those ideas may lead. A new idea is a beginning, not an end. Ideas are rare— milk them. Following the consequences of small ideas can result in big payoffs.

(The fifth element is change.)

To remember these, they associate each of the four habits with a classic element of nature: Earth (understand deeply), Fire (make mistakes), Air (ask questions), Water (follow the flow).

I found many good points on each front, especially on the importance of depth of understanding. Kindle highlights below. All direct quotes from the book; bolded sentences my own addition.



You can understand anything better than you currently do. Setting a higher standard for yourself for what you mean by “understanding” can revolutionize how you perceive the world.

The most fundamental ideas in any subject can be understood with ever-increasing depth. Professional tennis players watch the ball; mathematicians understand a nuanced notion of number; successful students continue to improve their mastery of the concepts from previous chapters and courses as they move toward the more advanced material on the horizon; successful people regularly focus on the core purpose of their profession or life. True experts continually deepen their mastery of the basics.

The fundamental difference between the true master and the talented students clearly occurred at a far more basic level than in the intricacies of complex pieces. Tony explained that mastering an efficient, nuanced performance of simple pieces allows one to play spectacularly difficult pieces with greater control and artistry.

Consider a subject you think you know or a subject you are trying to master. Open up a blank document on your computer. Without referring to any outside sources, write a detailed outline of the fundamentals of the subject. Can you write a coherent, accurate, and comprehensive description of the foundations of the subject, or does your knowledge have gaps? Do you struggle to think of core examples? Do you fail to see the overall big picture that puts the pieces together? Now compare your effort to external sources (texts, Internet, experts, your boss). When you discover weaknesses in your own understanding of the basics, take action.

Great scientists, creative thinkers, and problem solvers do not solve hard problems head-on. When they are faced with a daunting question, they immediately and prudently admit defeat. They realize that there is no sense in wasting energy vainly grappling with complexity when, instead, they can productively grapple with simpler cases that will teach them how to deal with the complexity to come. If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it. —George Polya

Apply this mind-set to your work: when faced with a difficult issue or challenge, do something else. Focus entirely on solving a subproblem that you know you can successfully resolve. Be completely confident that the extraordinarily thorough work that you invest on the subproblem will later be the guide that allows you to navigate through the complexities of the larger issue. But don’t jump to that more complex step while you’re at work on the subissue. First just try to hit the moon … walking on its surface is for another day.

I simply asked the artist, “Tell me one insight into painting.” The artist, a bit surprised by the out-of-the-blue request, thought for several moments and then responded, “Shadows are the color of the sky.” I didn’t really believe him at first. Like most people, I thought shadows were gray or black, but if you look closely, you will see that indeed shadows in the great outdoors do have color—albeit subtle. I had seen shadows every day of my life, but I was wrong about what they really look like. Those colorful shadows gave me a whole new view of the world—a fresh perspective that transcends the art of painting.

Let’s return to a time in which photographs were not in living color. During that period, people referred to pictures as “photographs” rather than “black-and-white photographs” as we do today. The possibility of color did not exist, so it was unnecessary to insert the adjective “black-and-white.” However, suppose we did include the phrase “black-and-white” before the existence of color photography. By highlighting that reality, we become conscious of current limitations and thus open our minds to new possibilities and potential opportunities. World War I was given that name only after we were deeply embattled in World War II. Before that horrific period of the 1940s, World War I was simply called “The Great War” or, even worse, “The War to End All Wars.” What if we had called it “World War I” back in 1918? Such a label might have made the possibility of a second worldwide conflict a greater reality for governments and individuals, and might have led to better international policy decisions. We become conscious of issues when we explicitly identify and articulate them.

From the physical world to society, academics, personal relations, business, abstract ideas, and even sports, a deep examination of the simple and familiar is a potent first step for learning, thinking, creating, and problem solving.

instead extract a new insight from that misstep and correctly think, “Great: one down, nine to go—I’m making forward progress!” And indeed you are. After your first failure, think, “Terrific, I’m 10% done!” Mistakes, loss, and failure are all flashing lights clearly pointing the way to deeper understanding and creative solutions.

Success is not about almost always succeeding. How would you feel if you were failing about 60% of the time? Sounds like a solid “F.” Well, in certain contexts you’d be a superstar. A major league baseball player who failed 60% of the time—that is, who had a batting average of .400—would be phenomenal. No

A transformative but challenging personal policy is to never pretend to know more than you do. Don’t build on ambiguity and ignorance. When you don’t know something, admit it as quickly as possible and immediately take action—ask a question.

If you are a teacher or a manager, instead of asking, “Are there any questions?” assume there are, and say, “Talk to your neighbor for sixty seconds and write down two questions.” Then randomly call on pairs to read their questions. That is, instead of asking whether there are questions, tell your listeners that they are to create questions—an important habit to develop for lifelong learning and curiosity.

there are at least two kinds of ignorance: cases in which you know the right question but not the answer, and cases in which you don’t even know which question to ask.

recognize that each new idea extends a line that started in the past and travels through the present into the future. Successful and effective learners and innovators harness the power of the flow of ideas, which suggests the element Water.

When you learn a new concept or master a skill, think about what extensions, variations, and applications are possible. It’s natural to think of the moment when you’ve solved a problem or mastered a new idea as a time to party and rest on your laurels—as if you’ve arrived at the final chapter of some great story. In fact, a bed of laurels will never offer a satisfying rest, and a new idea or solution should always be viewed as a beginning. Effective students and creative innovators regularly strive to uncover the unintended consequences of a lesson learned or a new idea. The time to work on a problem is after you’ve solved it. —R. H. Bing

I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else. —Pablo Picasso

Consider an issue or problem and now exaggerate some feature of it to a ridiculous extreme. If you are arguing one side of an issue, support the side you truly believe; then make the argument so exaggerated that you realize that it’s way over the top. Now study your exaggerated description and discover some underlying defect. Does that defect also exist in a nonexaggerated perspective?