Book Review: Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson

71AYbGJCoZL._SL1499_I loved Phil Jackson’s latest memoir, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, written with Hugh Delehanty. It’s full of interesting stories from his time coaching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, amusing and at times inspiring riffs on his Zen spirituality beliefs, and smart advice on how to coach a bunch of individual talents to work together as a team.

Jackson is one of the winningest coaches ever. And probably the most spiritually inclined. I found plenty of insights on teamwork, leadership, and meditation that are broadly applicable. That said, if you aren’t interested in basketball, it’ll be a slog. There are many love letters to the triangle offense and blow-by-blows of seasons which will interest only those with an above-average interest in the game.

Here are some of the lessons and a couple direct quotes:

  • “After years of experimenting, I discovered that the more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrounding final authority.”
  • He didn’t call a time out when an opposing team went on a 6-0 run. He wanted his players to figure out a solution themselves — not bail them out.
  • Mix up practice routines by introducing novelty in a long season. He had the Bulls practice in silence once; another team they scrimmaged with the lights out. He broke the team into a stronger squad and a weaker squad and then didn’t call any fouls on the weaker squad during a scrimmage.
  • The Knicks coach, when Jackson was a player, wanted bench players to be actively engaged in the game so they were prepared mentally. He’d give them several minutes’ warning before putting them in the game so they could focus in.
  • Follow your breath with your mind as it moves in and out like a swinging door.
  • Practices for new NBA players would start with the basics, including footwork, dribbling, passing. Even at the professional level, re-visiting the basics was necessary. Most experts understand simple things deeply.
  • “At that time most coaches subscribed to the Knute Rockne theory of mental training. They tried to get their players revved up for the game with win-one-for-the-Gipper-style pep talks. That approach may work if you’re a linebacker. But what I discovered playing for the Knicks is that when I got too excited mentally, it had a negative effect on my ability to stay focused under pressure. So I did the opposite. Instead of charging players up, I developed a number of strategies to help them quiet their minds and build awareness so they could go into battle poised and in control.”
  • On road trips, he selected a book for each player to read. He assigned Michael Jordan Song of Solomon.
  • Jackson orchestrated a meeting between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan during a Lakers’ trip to Chicago, with the hope that Michael could help Kobe understand the value of selfless play. After shaking hands, the first words out of Kobe’s mouth to Jordan were “You know I can kick your ass one on one.”

What I’ve Been Reading

Books. More books.

1. The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health by John Durant. A good introduction to all things paleo. I’m largely convinced that bad carbs are bad for you, and I’m trying to move to a more meat-heavy diet.

2. Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection by Ethan Zuckerman. Ethan is a longtime deep thinker on issues of the internet, and in his first book, he provides his usual astute analysis of what it means to live in the digital age. I enjoyed his emphasis on globalization and how that’s shaping our identities.

He makes some sobering observations about Americans’ lack of interest in international news. More broadly, he emphasizes that for all the talk of globalization, many trends still end up being local. Americans mostly fly to places within 900 miles of their origin point; Europeans mostly fly within Europe; Japanese within Japan; and so on. “The infrastructure of air travel is global, but the flow is local.” That applies to many things, Zuckerman argues. I lost focus in the second half of the book — there’s not one clear thesis that drives the book — but the early chapters were worthwhile reading.

BOOK-master180

3. One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak. Hilarious. Just hilarious. One of the more entertaining collection of stories I’ve read — some as short as a few sentences long, some as long as several pages. You may not have heard of Novak, but you probably know his work from The Office and The Mindy Project (a very funny show). He’s a smart guy and the seriousness of some of the points he makes can catch you off guard amidst all the ha ha ha.

4. Terrorist by John Updike. A highly enjoyable novel that came out after 9/11, full of Updikean one-liners, with a plot that moves right along. While serious Updike watchers I don’t rank this among his very best novels, it’s hard to go wrong when you can enjoy paragraphs like:

“She has left undone the two top buttons of her paint-smeared man’s work shirt, so he sees the tops of her breasts bounce. This woman has a lot of yes in her.”

Or:

“Loving parents; a happy though not quite conventional marriage; a wonderful only child; intellectually interesting, physically untaxing work checking out books and looking up subjects on the Internet: the world has conspired to make her soft and overweight, insulated against the passion and danger that crackle wherever people truly rub against one other.”

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

61UbQXxc-iLAfter posting an excerpt of John Williams’ novel Stoner, I knew I had to read the entirety of the book itself. I did, and it totally delivered on my high expectations.

The protagonist, named Stoner, is an unglamorous professor at a small university in rural America. The story focuses on his life, his family, his petty academic disputes, his affair, his love of language, his career ambitions (or lack thereof). Nothing crazy happens. It is simply the story of a reasonably straightforward life as lived by one particular man. He accumulates quite a bit of wisdom along the way — wisdom that is shared on nearly every page with beautiful writing.

Is Stoner’s life a failure? Perhaps. He wrestles with those questions near the end of his life. They are some of the most moving scenes of the novel, and provoked quite a bit of reflection on my part. Sadness is the emotion I felt more than anything as I neared the finish of the book.

Here’s the NewYorker.com’s review titled “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.” Below are my favorite excerpts from the book (all direct quotes).



He became aware of loneliness. Sometimes, in his attic room at night, he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows.

Once there was a brief-lived demonstration against one of the professors, an old and bearded teacher of Germanic languages, who had been born in Munich and who as a youth had attended the University of Berlin. But when the professor met the angry and flushed little group of students, blinked in bewilderment, and held out his thin, shaking hands to them, they disbanded in sullen confusion.

She had been taught to look forward to some betterment of that condition, but the betterment had never been very precisely specified. She had gone into her marriage to Horace Bostwick with that dissatisfaction so habitual within her that it was a part of her person; and as the years went on, the dissatisfaction and bitterness increased, so general and pervasive that no specific remedy might assuage them.

he spent his wedding night apart from his wife, his long body curled stiffly and sleeplessly on a small sheet. Her body was lax and wanton in its naked sprawl, and it shone like pale gold. William came nearer the bed. She was fast asleep, but in a trick of the light her slightly opened mouth seemed to shape the soundless words of passion and love. He stood looking at her for a long time. He felt a distant pity and reluctant friendship and familiar respect; and he felt also a weary sadness, for he knew that no longer could the sight of her bring upon him the agony of desire that he had once known, and knew that he would never again be moved as he had once been moved by her presence. The sadness lessened, and he covered her gently, turned out the light, and got in bed beside her.

They buried his father in a small plot on the outskirts of Booneville, and William returned to the farm with his mother. That night he could not sleep. He dressed and walked into the field that his father had worked year after year, to the end that he now had found. He tried to remember his father, but the face that he had known in his youth would not come to him. He knelt in the field and took a dry clod of earth in his hand. He broke it and watched the grains, dark in the moonlight, crumble and flow through his fingers. He brushed his hand on his trouser leg and got up and went back to the house. He did not sleep; he lay on the bed and looked out the single window until the dawn came, until there were no shadows upon the land, until it stretched gray and barren and infinite before him.

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

“Lust and learning,” Katherine once said. “That’s really all there is, isn’t it?” And it seemed to Stoner that that was exactly true, that that was one of the things he had learned.

For their life together that summer was not all love-making and talk. They learned to be together without speaking, and they got the habit of repose; Stoner brought books to Katherine’s apartment and left them, until finally they had to install an extra bookcase for them. In the days they spent together Stoner found himself returning to the studies he had all but abandoned; and Katherine continued to work on the book that was to be her dissertation. For hours at a time she would sit at the tiny desk against the wall, her head bent down in intense concentration over books and papers, her slender pale neck curving and flowing out of the dark blue robe she habitually wore; Stoner sprawled in the chair or lay on the bed in like concentration. Sometimes they would lift their eyes from their studies, smile at each other, and return to their reading; sometimes Stoner would look up from his book and let his gaze rest upon the graceful curve of Katherine’s back and upon the slender neck where a tendril of hair always fell. Then a slow, easy desire would come over him like a calm, and he would rise and stand behind her and let his arms rest lightly on her shoulders. She would straighten and let her head go back against his chest, and his hands would go forward into the loose robe and gently touch her breasts. Then they would make love, and lie quietly for a while, and return to their studies, as if their love and learning were one process.

He had a glimpse of a figure that flitted through smoking-room anecdotes, and through the pages of cheap fiction—a pitiable fellow going into his middle age, misunderstood by his wife, seeking to renew his youth, taking up with a girl years younger than himself, awkwardly and apishly reaching for the youth he could not have, a fatuous, garishly got-up clown at whom the world laughed out of discomfort, pity, and contempt.

They told themselves and each other that they were closer than they ever had been; and to their surprise, they realized that it was true, that the words they spoke to comfort themselves were more than consolatory. They made a closeness possible and a commitment inevitable.

…the old tender sensuality of knowing each other well and with the new intense passion of loss.

But William Stoner knew of the world in a way that few of his younger colleagues could understand. Deep in him, beneath his memory, was the knowledge of hardship and hunger and endurance and pain. Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Booneville farm, there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him by forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak.

He could not think of himself as old. Sometimes, in the morning when he shaved, he looked at his image in the glass and felt no identity with the face that stared back at him in surprise, the eyes clear in a grotesque mask; it was as if he wore, for an obscure reason, an outrageous disguise, as if he could, if he wished, strip away the bushy white eyebrows, the rumpled white hair, the flesh that sagged around the sharp bones, the deep lines that pretended age.

Sometimes Edith came into the room and sat on the bed beside him and they talked. They talked of trivial things—of people they knew casually, of a new building going up on the campus, of an old one torn down; but what they said did not seem to matter. A new tranquillity had come between them. It was a quietness that was like the beginning of love; and almost without thinking, Stoner knew why it had come. They had forgiven themselves for the harm they had done each other, and they were rapt in a regard of what their life together might have been. Almost without regret he looked at her now; in the soft light of late afternoon her face seemed young and unlined. If I had been stronger, he thought; if I had known more; if I could have understood.

Gordon smiled and nodded and made a joke; but Stoner knew that in that instant Gordon Finch had withdrawn from him in such a way that he could never return. He felt a keen regret that he had spoken so of Dave Masters, the defiant boy they both had loved, whose ghost had held them, all these years, in a friendship whose depth they had never quite realized.

Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that … He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.” And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else? What did you expect? he asked.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.

Book Review: Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff

51A5HB0xY6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Some months ago, I was driving, listening to the audiobook of Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff, a collection of short stories. I got home and pulled into the parking space for my apartment. It was nighttime and quiet — all the neighbors were asleep. I turned off the engine but kept the key in the ignition so the battery would power the audio system in the car. I switched off the headlights. I sat in my car, engulfed in darkness, and took in the rich voice the narrator until the story came to an end. They is. They is. They is.

The story, “Bullet in the Brain,” which ends that way, is one of the best in the collection. It’s funny and tender, and in how the message is delivered, quite innovative I thought. Your life flashes before your eyes–Wolff transforms this hackneyed thought into something original.

Another favorite is “Down to Bone,” about a son tending to his mother on her deathbed. He darts out for a couple hours to tidy up the agreement with the funeral home. When he returns, the mother has so deteriorated that she thinks he is her father. “Daddy,” she says. “It’s all right,” the son says. “I’m here.” Realizing that “he no longer knew how to be a son, but he still knew how to be a father,” he tells her: “Everything’s fine, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be fine.” She whispers back, “Daddy…You’re here.”

Tobias Wolff is one of the living giants of American literature. Here’s my review of Old School. Here’s one of my favorite parts of This Boy’s Life. Here’s my rave of In Pharaoh’s Army. Here’s a quote of his about how everything comes to an end from a list of some other favorite lines of books. Here’s how Wolff has complimented George Saunders

#

I like short story collections in audiobook format. If you’re not digging a story, you skip to the next. In a normal book, if you listen to it as audio, and you lose interest, it’s hard to swap out to a new one. The big downside to audiobooks is you can’t underline or take notes. For Our Story Begins, I bought a paperback edition so I could do that, after I had listened to it.

He Was Himself. And He Knew What He Had Been.

61UbQXxc-iLThe other weekend, I was eating cottage cheese wrapped in toasted tortillas (my go-to snack), and casually flipping through the New York Times magazine. I came upon an article that took me in by surprise. Afterwards I contemplatively stared into space and had one of those “What does it all mean?” moments. Maybe I was in a dark mood when I read it.

In any event, it’s a short and simple piece. The writer, Steve Almond, extolls his favorite book ever: Stoner by John Williams.

I bought the book, of course, but in the meantime, Almond’s summary is as follows.

First, take your inner life seriously: “Stoner argues that we are measured ultimately by our capacity to face the truth of who we are in private moments, not by the burnishing of our public selves.”

Second, you’re probably a rather ordinary and flawed human being — just like the protagonist William Stoner:

William Stoner is, in many ways, a dubious leading man, introverted and passive. He fails even to protect his daughter from the deranged whims of his troubled wife. The story of his life is not a neat crescendo of industry and triumph, but something more akin to our own lives: a muddle of desires and inhibitions and compromises.

And if you think you’re really special, get real:

Put your wit — or your craft projects or your rants or your pranks — on public display.

Otherwise, you wind up like poor Stoner: a footnote in the great human story.

But aren’t nearly all of us footnotes in the end? Don’t the dreams we harbor eventually give way to the actuality of our lives?

Stoner’s creator seems to argue that self-knowledge is the highest form of knowledge, especially when the actuality of our lives isn’t anything special (as is the case for 99.9% of us):

Soon enough, fate confounds him. His marriage devolves into a domestic horror. His daughter falls into despair. A senseless feud undermines his career. He suffers no delusions about his place in the world. He recognizes that others find him absurd and that his intellectual contributions to his arcane field are at best minor. Over and over again, Stoner is forced to confront his own weakness, his limitations as a son and father and husband and scholar. And yet he refuses to turn away.

As Stoner lies dying, his creator observes: “There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”

How many of us can say the same of ourselves?

He was himself. And he knew what he had been.

Book Review: Floating City by Sudhir Venkatesh

For those of us for whom “vice” equals sending text messages while driving over the speed limit on a freeway, there’s a natural curiosity about the dark side of society — curiosity about what happens after hours, in seedy neighborhoods, among those whose livelihoods depend on breaking the law. Hookers. Drug dealers. Loan shark frauds. The curiosity begins with complete ignorance about the practical realities. For example, if I wanted to buy cocaine in San Francisco, I have no idea where I’d even start. I don’t want to, but I’m still curious about the process and the people. Who controls a given block? Who are the pimps and how do they recruit the hookers? Where and how do the bosses keep their cash?

This curiosity partially explains why so many of us are glued to TV shows like The Wire — it opens up a side of urban American life that’s as foreign as Beijing to someone like me. And yet, despite several of these shows on the air, it was still a total shock to find out a couple weeks ago — via an FBI affidavit — that just a few miles away, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, there is serious organized crime going on, with state politicians trafficking guns across the border, gang leaders ordering hits on enemies down the block, briefcases of cash being delivered to drug kingpins in dark alleyways, and other allegations pulled straight out of Hollywood bang-bang-shoot-em-up central casting. This stuff is happening right here, right now, just across the way. And I am utterly ignorant of all of it.

51crPRZL9JLA few years ago, a University of Chicago sociologist named Sudhir Venkatesh made waves by integrating himself into the Chicago gang scene. Now, in his latest book called Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy, he integrates himself into New York’s sex trade. He meets people in the ecosystem, somehow earns their trust, follows them around, and writes about what he sees.

It’s an interesting book, and I had a couple broad impressions. First, there’s a fluid connection between the underground economy and the above-board economy in a given city–the hookers who sleep with Goldman Sachs managers; the hotel maids cleaning the semen-stained beds who owe their immigration status to a Yale finance graduate who runs an immigration smuggling ring; the drug dealers who cut deals with cops in order to make sure the Wall Street trader is hyped up enough to want to order the full menu from the prostitute; and so on. This overground/underground relationship is best understood in network terms, with distributed nodes and a constantly shifting structure. A second big picture impression was about the nature of global cities like New York, where the desperately poor interact with the exceptionally wealthy in such varied off-the-books ways. These mega diverse American cities play host to a recent immigrant’s quest for the American dream, a quest that oftentimes is financed by an “alternative economic path” that should be framed, Venkatesh reminds us, in more complex terms than just by the laws they transgress.

Venkatesh writes that “good sociology is always a mixture of close focus and long shot. You dial in and pull back, dial in and pull back, a delicate dance over the data gaps.” The book’s highlights come more in the form of colorful nuggets (“dial in”) than scintillating sociological conclusions (“pull back”). It may seem surprising, for example, that after spending so much time with prostitutes Venkatesh failed to discuss the question of whether prostitution should be legalized in the U.S. But I, for one, am glad he didn’t. Isn’t it more interesting to find out that hotel bellmen and taxi hailers get kickbacks in the form of free sex with the prostitutes to whom they refer a lot business?

Venkatesh himself is definitely part of the book. Plenty of sentences begin with “I.” Other reviewers have criticized this aspect of the narrative. Perhaps I’m more interested than most in the internal machinations of an academic sociologist spending his days surrounded by hookers and drug dealers and trying to write a book through it all and, surprise surprise, whose own marriage is falling apart in the process — so I didn’t mind the authorial interjections. It does add a dark tone to the book. But it makes the author’s own sympathy for his subjects feel authentic. And that sympathy is contagious. I came away feeling more understanding of the need for many of the people in the book to hustle their way to a living–to create a better life than the impoverished environment they were born into.

(Thanks to Aaron Hurst for sending the book to me.)

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.

Continue reading