Friday, May 31, 2019

Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life

Coach is Michael Lewis's tribute to a Louisiana Sports coach. The coach was tough on his players. He wanted to help them become great men, rather than simply help them simply check a box off for their college application. Today, parents are most likely to fight against these tough lessons. They pay a lot for the education, and just expect their kids to sail through without having to work hard. ALas, this deprives them of some of the most important life lessons they can learn from a tough coach.

The Undoing Project

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were both born in Israel and later studied psychology there. Beyond that, they seemed to have little in common. Kahneman lived in France during World War II and had experiences running from Nazis. He tended to be more to himself, while Tversky seemed to know everything and be more social. Once they met, they found they had a great meeting of the minds and were able to achieve more together. They wrote a number of influential papers in their time together. They gradually drifted apart as Tversky received more public recognition. However, he died of cancer, and it was Kahneman that later received the Nobel prize.
Michael Lewis starts The Undoing Project by providing anecdotes of showing the fallacy of human judgement. In sports, picking the right players can have a serious impact on the success of a franchise. However, scouts are prone to use their gut, often missing out on great players. Using data can help avoid some of the human fallacies - but even the data requires some human judgement. The narrative then dives in to the biography of the psychologists.
Both Kahneman and Tversky had a rebellious streak. They didn't fully trust common theories - especially full rationality. People are prone to many biases that allow them to be fooled. When discussing a past event, people often engage in hindsight bias, exaggerating their perceived odds that the event would have occurred. When choosing among multiple items, it is not uncommon for people to prefer A to B, B to C and C to A, seemingly contradicting basic logic. Due to endowment and sunk costs, people are more likely to hold on to something they already have - even though they would never purchase it. The fear of loss is more powerful than the desire for gain. Even if two outcomes are the same, most people would much rather avoid the outcome with loss rather than one with a gain.
The title comes from one of their final works together. What does it take to mentally "undo" something. People experience much more grief if they appear close to gaining something than if they were nowhere near. Missing a winning lottery number by one digit would be traumatic, while missing it by 5 would barely be noticed. However, both cases have the identical outcome of no win. In one, it was just easier to visualize moving over. When undoing events, we often look at the most proximate, easy to visualize causes, even if they are not the most probable.
Knowledge of inbuilt human biases can be used to help improve decision making. However, these same biases can also be used to manipulate people.

Thursday, May 30, 2019


Humanimal looks at humans from an "animal" perspective. How is it that humans came to dominate the world? Use of tools helped, but many other animals have tools. The ability to pass on knowledge from generation to generation ends up being a main factor. He spends a good chunk of time looking at corollary behaviors in other animals. He cautions that people should not justify a human behavior simply because a similar behavior exists in nature. Animals may appear to rape and murder, but without a communicable thought process, there is no way to directly compare. He also spends time looking at sexual behaviors. There are a number of different reproductive mechanisms out there. There are also many instances of animals (including humans) engaging in sexual activity that will not produce offspring. Why is that so? There are some conclusions to that and the question of how homosexuality propagates. He dubunks many explanations, and cautiously presents his preferred explanations. (For example, homosexuals tend to come from larger families.) There are some areas that he decides are not worth touching, and just condemns them out of hand. There are some interesting bits, but it is overall an easily forgettable book.

Monday, May 20, 2019

I am Malala

Malala lived in Pakistan and values education for everyone - especially girls. Her grandfather was a religious figure, while her father was an educator. Her hometown became infiltrated by the Taliban, who spread talk that appealed to the un-educated with faux-traditional religious values. She had became a spokesperson for the rights of all people for education, and thus became a target for the fundamentalists (even after the Taliban control had been supposedly removed.) One day they shot her. She received some of the top medical care in Pakistan. However, the conditions in the ICU afterwards were not great. Luckily, there were some British doctors present, and she was sent off to England to recover.
Her story shows the intersection of education and traditional cultural and religious beliefs. It is possible to be well educated, and still adhere to a traditional religion. We often see the baby thrown out with the bathwater as educated people appear to abandon religion altogether, leading to cultural wars. Her case shows a more surgical adoption of the religious teachings without the cultural baggage. (The Taliban, however, would often advocate for a "strict" religious interpretation based more on perceived historical practices than actual religious teachings.) It does pose an interesting question. Is the religious doctrine really what is important to people, or is it just used as a means of expressing what is really important: cultural conformity?
The early descriptions of life in Pakistan are also interesting. It is still very tribal. There was an interesting case of a society that would switch lands every 5 years. This would prevent people from worrying about who got the better land. But, it also disincentived taking care of the land and planting fruit trees. Despite being a fairly conservative Muslim country, Pakistan was one of the first countries to have a female leader. However, the country has also had multiple military coups, and people have a strong distrust of the government.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Chile and Argentina

This is a super brief overview of the history of Argentina and Chile. One thing I didn't realize is that there was an attempt at a "United States of Argentina" with countries such as Paraguay and Uraguay. However, the confederation broke down, leading to the states as they are today. The two far south countries have had their ups and downs with military rule coming in a little too frequently. The English had helped agitate for Argentina's separation from Spain. However, Argentina responded by their independence. Chile has a narrow area of fertility where most people live. However, there are also wealthy mining areas. Earthquakes are a common occurrence. This overview tended to focus a lot on politics. It would be nice to go in into a more detailed history.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Mrs. Dalloway

I can oftne gauge by the narrator of an audibook whether or not I will enjoy it. When I heard the upper-class British lady voice, I knew I would be in for an uphill battle. I was expecting some nice stream of conscious introspection. However, what I got was a early 20th century Jane Austen. Mrs Dalloway is is throwing a party. She has a former flame visit her. She reminisces about one of her old girl friends. Yada yada yada. I was exploring the mind of somebody that I was not interested in exploring. Oh well.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

The "Element" is the thing that you are both passionate about and can do well. Ideally, you should devote your time and energy being gainfully employed in the field of your element. However, often times, the element cannot immediately pay the bills. Many examples are given of highly successful creative types that struggled in the wrong fields before finding their calling and succeeding greatly. However, the story was also given of the car salesman that was an accomplished surfing photographer.
The Element criticizes the modern education system. Schools are modeled after the needs of industrial production. They fail a great number of people that do not match the prototype. We need to encourage writers, dancers and others that just don't meet the system, but have great talents that can help elsewhere in society. He compares our education system to fast food. A McDonald's restaurant follows a precise formula. However, a better system is something like the Michelin guide. Provide general criteria of what we expect, and let the schools do it however they see fit. This produces a higher quality diversity (but is not as predictable.) It does require high quality teachers (while the current system treats teachers as mindless cogs in a system.) The arbitrary age grouping and the hierarchy of educational subjects are also problematic.
It is also helpful for people to find their tribe to be able to realize there are others like them. This is not to be confused with group think, which is confining instead of liberating. Youth often "rebel" against societal norms, but then have a subculture with its own norms.
Finding a good mentor is also extremely valuable in the pursuit of one's passion. There are many challenges in the process that a mentor can help with. There are many things on the road that can be discouraging. One example mentioned was the music teacher that managed to turn half of the Beatles off of music. Luckily, they "recovered" from their music education to find "mentors" that could help teach them what they needed to know.
I do wonder how many people really can find "the element". Doesn't society also need the conformist industrial workers? It seems we need a lot of people that are passionate about being the best department store attendant or restaurant server. What if the passions do not match the needs of society? How can he help people to find what they are passionate about doing, while still providing all the cogs that are needed for the world to function?

On Writing

On Writing begins as Stephen King's autobiography. He discusses what he remembers about his childhood. He had somewhat of a rough upbringing. He enjoyed writing, and managed to accumulate a large number of rejection notices. He did not find much pleasure in school. However, he did find it a good place to sell some of his early writings. Alas, the school administration was not too fond of this. He somehow managed to get into college and even get a teaching degree (and meet his wife.) His first big break came from Carrie. He originally threw it in the trash can. His wife found it, and made him finish it. He received an advance for it, and then made the big bucks when the paperback rights were purchased. However, all was not easy going. He alcohol and drug use. He does not have kind words to say about substance abuse. He does not think it helps the craft, merely that creative people find themselves succumbing to it. He had supporters that intervened in his life to help him break the habit and become sober. Things seemed to go well for him until an inattentive driver hit him on a Maine country road. He describes his experience there and trials of making it "back to life" after the collision.
In between the biographical elements, he gives his advice about writing. The main bits of advice are to read a lot and write a lot. The first draft should be private and finished quickly. Later drafts involve readers. You are writing for an audience, so it is ok to take their feedback. It is often useful to write with a particular reader in mind. For mechanics, he suggests clear and concise. Adverbs are your enemy. The dialog should tell the story. Flowery language may be ok, but excessive ornamentation can get in the way of the story. Revisions should reduce the size of the manuscript and increase the quality. He believes that some writers are awful, and some are great. Most writers are in between. Through work, "competent" writers can become good writers. There is some "luck" in getting the right contacts in publishing industry. However, that luck is mostly overrated. Through work, any good writer can find the right audience and get published.

Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero

Big Business is often derided as one of the sources of problems in American society. Small business tends to be more greatly respected. However, big business provides higher paying jobs, more diversity, and generally more benefit to society. Even large CEO pay packages are not out of line when compared to the increased responsibilities of CEOs. The size of large businesses is usually a result of the will of the people. Companies like Google produce something that people want and grow to produce more of it. Amazon sells things at low prices, generating more happy customers and more sales. Government regulation also contributes to sizes of companies. Cell phone carriers need to be large to cover the country and purchase spectrum from the government. Companies in highly regulated industries need to be large in order to justify the expenses of the regulation. It is the regulation that creates the monopoly. Companies that manage to create monopolies on their own without benefiting consumers are extremely rare.
People tend to treat big businesses as other "people". They also use anecdotal strategies to attack large companies. They are run by people. People make mistakes. It is human nature to amplify the 1 mistake at the expense of the 1000 good things that were done. Thus, the few bad actors tend to unjustly malign big business. There are problems with big businesses. However, the capitalist system does a good job of weeding out the bad actors. (Protective regulations tend to make things worse, allowing dinosaurs to remain around longer than they should.) Maybe we should give businesses a little more respect.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

When he died, Cornelius Vanderbilt net worth was more than 10% of the total money in circulation in the United States. He made the money himself through a serious of business ventures primarily in transportation. He lived relatively modestly, despite his significant wealth. (His descendants would use their inheritance to build great mansions.) He did not set out to build great monuments to himself. He did provide money to endow the university that now bears his name. However, he never set foot there, and didn't even ask for his name. (He thought the northern wealth should help support the south after the civil war.)
The book paints a very laudatory picture of his business dealings. He carries out his activities out of principle. He is constantly doing the moral thing and helping to increase the value of companies rather than simply extract money. The book seems to portray him in almost too positive of a light. He is seen as the humble businessman who only monopolized industries to help people out (or to exact revenge on bad actors.) There may be some truth to it, but it does feel like too much of a deification. Perhaps his moral compass is what enabled him to succeed where others failed. He wasn't after the graft. He wanted a big successful company. He started working on steamships. He was able to move boats around and make money where it was needed. He was involved in the pre-Panama-Canal route through Nicaragua. It was faster, but ended up dying due to politics, including "filibusters" who try to claim foreign land for America. He gradually ended up more involved with railroads, taking over the poor performing Harlem line and helping it to succeed, before taking over other New York Lines.
It is interesting to think that when he was alive and building his fortunes, places like Seattle barely even existed. The times also saw a conversion from individualists to large corporation. Boats could be bought and run by an individual. Only through government interference and "gentleman's agreements" were monopolies created. It was very easy for one boat to move to a new location. Horses and carriages were also individualistic. They could go just about anywhere, though not super fast. A good road would help (and thus some toll roads were created). However, these tended to be shorter distance turnpikes. Railroads started in this framework before changing everything. First they were similar to the toll roads. They were small rail lines serving local traffic. They were also quite dangerous. Then the railroads grew larger and larger. They needed to maintain the tracks, the cars and the engines. The expenses necessitated much more capital and large corporations. Long distance traffic involved traveling over a large number of different lines. There were often switches involved. This was costly and time consuming. Consolidation helped freight and passengers move faster. However, there were still plenty of opportunities for graft in the structure. After the experience with railroads, America turned to a more socialist transportation structure. Highways were built on the public dime, and open to everyone with an automobile. Airports were similarly often built with public funds and open to private airplanes. This seemed to appeal the individuality of users. (Anybody could be an operator on the transportation system with a minimum of capital), in spite of the large expense needed for infrastructure and maintenance. Even the railroads have become partially under the pervue of the government.
Vanderbilt would not recognize what has become of his "empire" today. However, he would likely appreciate the significant changes that have occurred in society.