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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book recommendation: Sapiens

Two months ago, I bought a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. There are few books I can say this about but this one revolutionized my thinking. I give it 5-stars and it’s something I quote all the time; there are few books I can say that about (another being The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker).

I think the book is incredible.

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What’s it about, you ask? Well, as you can guess from the title, it talks about the history of the human species. Ever since I started becoming interested in human anthropology a few years ago, I’ve gravitated towards these types of books. Harari talks about the beginnings of humans and how we as a species started out as apes in the plains of Africa and true, we made tools, but it wasn’t for hunting so much as for breaking open bones of other animals after the primary predators had eaten them. We were looking for bone marrow. For much of our species’ history, humans were scavengers.

Each chapter looks over another point in our species history, especially as we moved from hunting-and-gathering, to the agricultural revolution, to the industrial revolution, to the information age.

There are some things of the book that stick in my mind to this day. Human beings’ behavior is determined by their genes, the same as every other animal. And just like every other animal, we don’t extend group-level benefits to people outside of our group. We are naturally xenophobic.

Yet for some reason, humans are able to co-operate between each other as large groups of strangers. That is unusual and is unique to our species.

Why?

There are three things that have conquered humans:

1. Money – we may not trust each other, but we trust what money represents. And because we are able to trust what money represents – that we can buy things and that it is backed by the government or the trust of everyone else that we can exchange money for other things – strangers can come together and exchange goods without fear of harming each other. Money is a made up thing; there’s nothing that says we have to believe in it. Yet believe in it we do.

2. Empire – large groups of strangers come together to form empires and pacify nations, and also grant a series of basic rights to the individual. Empires are largely imaginary, they exist because we all agree that they exist. But because we agree that they exist, it allows us to cooperate with each other and divide ourselves into in-groups and out-groups.

3. Religion – religion gets a bad wrap from all the skeptics and atheists out there but nobody can deny that religion is amazing for bonding strangers together into a common cause. And religion is not just about supernatural beliefs, there are secular ones too (e.g., communism), complete with its prophets and list of sins.

Harari also goes into the pervasive meta-religion of our time – Romantic Consumerism (of which my friend Frank is a dedicated member). Romantic means “many different experiences” and consumerism means “to buy or acquire things.” So, our society worships at the church of buying many different things.

Modern day ascetics (and you know who you are) decry this, but it’s an important religion. For most of our species history, we spent the majority of our time in subsistence living, barely producing enough for ourselves and an elite who ruled over us who had time to specialize in other things.

Yet as technology improved, it made it possible for many people to produce much more than they could consume, giving many people time to specialize and earn money. Yet if you are producing more than you can consume, then you need people to do the consumption of those goods and services. Without them, you have a lot of people with nothing to do, and that leads to social instability. So, romantic consumerism is a double-edged sword with positives as well as negatives.

At the end of the book, Harari talks about basic human happiness. We have all this stuff, but are we any happier? For sure, our lives are way better – people have more money, we live longer, and have fewer diseases to degrade the quality of our lives. Yet our lives are also much more complicated compared to medieval peasants who, despite having tough times, did have a strong sense of family, community, and a promise of a pleasant afterlife. And people today struggle mightily with depression and mental health medication.

And even if humans are happier, at what cost are we happier? We can eat meat, yet the animals we consume for meat live miserable lives. Cows, pigs, and chickens do not lead good lives. They are often stuck in their cages and pens, force fed and always pregnant or nursing, only at the end to be slaughtered for human consumption. Even though some animals lead better lives like racehorses, cats, and dogs, most other animals lives are worse. We humans justify it by saying we are a class of species by ourselves. Yet doesn’t that sound like a hollow rationalization? People have been using that excuse for centuries as ways of oppressing their fellow humans.

It makes me stop and pause every time I eat meat.

I want to read this book again, I liked it that much. It has forced me to rethink how I think things, and while there are many books that I enjoy and enlighten me, I loved this one.

 

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For many years I resisted reading books electronically. I preferred them in my hands right in front of me.

But lately I’ve been reading a lot of books on my Kindle apps – on my phone, iPad and Windows 8 machine. What I like about the Kindle is that I can read it on any of a number of devices and it syncs my latest page read, and that I can purchase and download and start reading a book within 60 seconds.

60 seconds!

How am I supposed to resist that temptation? Alas, books are, and always have been, my weakness.

Anyhow, I’ve read a few good ones lately. Here they are in reverse chronological order since my last post:

  1. Zealot – The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Raza Aslan

    I heard about this book on the way to work, listening to NPR radio. I thought it sounded interesting so I decided to buy it. I enjoy reading about biblical archaeology as well as textual criticism, and this was right up my alley.

    In the book, Aslan looks at the central message of Jesus from the Bible interpreted within the time where and when he lived – first century Palestine which was occupied by Rome. Furthermore, Aslan examines the relationships between the (corrupt) Temple priests with Rome and why Jesus preached against it, and that was his central message (the kingdom of God would soon reverse it).

    I enjoyed the book and learned a lot of new things.

  2. The Folly of Fools, by Robert Trivers

    Out of all the books on this list, this one was my least favorite. It’s about the logic of self-deception in everyday life – how we as humans deceive ourselves.

    It has plenty of examples of how we deceive ourselves and what the results are but it didn’t go into any of the neuroscience behind it and how it may be reinforced through sociological or evolutionary functions. It was a little disappointing.

    Other Amazon reviews only gave it 3-stars, and I agree with that assessment.

  3. The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker

    Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is the most important book I have ever read about human development. I think that this one is #2.

    When I went to university in the late 1990’s I took a sociology course. In it, the basic premise is that society is the way it is because we learn everything. Gender roles are assigned arbitrarily, crime is a learned response, and so forth.

    This book says: Nonsense!

    Humans are not a blank slate upon which you can write anything. Instead, we are like computers with pre-installed software (our brains) that are predisposed to learning certain things. The reason why there are more men in mathematics and more women in social professions is not because society picked-and-chose it and reinforces it, but because that’s what men and women naturally prefer. It was reinforced to us through evolution.

    That is not to say that everything that is natural is good; far from it (the number one mistake people make when they hear this). But we are not blank slates that can be molded any which way.

  4. Evolution for Everyone, by David Sloan Wilson

    Out of all the science books on this list, this one is my favorite. The book is not about the study of evolution the way you might learn about it in school. Instead, it’s about how to apply it in every day life.

    The book is very relevant. Even people who don’t believe in it can learn a thing or two from the book.

  5. Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, by Robert Kurzban

    I wrote a little bit about this in my blog post about how the brain works. It changed my thinking about how our brains operate and that it is a series of modules (at least, according to the latest research).

    In the final chapter, Kurzban finally explains why everyone else is a hypocrite, that is, why we see hypocritical behavior in others but not ourselves (i.e., the self-serving bias). It’s because it is an evolutionary adaptation. We do not want others to get too far ahead of us because it reduces our own survival fitness (we don’t want to be left behind). However, if we are hypocritical, it can enhance our survival fitness and therefore our brains do a lot of work to minimize the contradictions in what we say is fair for others vs. what we ourselves do.

    Our brains are designed to survive and reproduce (whatever works gets reinforced), not act fair and rationally at all times.

So those are the books I’ve been reading lately. I give them all five stars except for #2 which I give three stars.

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Recently, I finished reading two books – Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, and Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin.  The books share some similarities but they each have their unique perspective.

Both books look at how people who are superstar achievers in their field get to where they are today.  For example, Bill Gates is super rich.  How’d he get that?  Jerry Rice was the greatest NFL receiver in history, how did he get to be so good?  How do top-ranked golfers or singers get to where they are?

The answer is that they practice a lot.  Like, a whole lot.  I’m not saying a half hour per day, I am saying 4-5 hours per day.  Bill Gates had access to a computer when he was in his teen years.  Tiger Woods started golfing when he was 3 years old.  The magic number that it takes to become an expert is 10,000 hours.  If you break it down, it takes you 10 years to become extremely good at anything to be a super achiever.

Did you get that?  It takes 10 years.  And many of today’s superstars started when they were very young.  When you’re young and don’t have the responsibilities of work, or family, or anything else you have to do when you are older, you have time to devote to a hobby like football, or computers, or golf.  If you’re in your mid-20’s or mid-30’s, when are you going to find time to religiously practice and get good at anything?  To put in the 10,000 hours deliberate practice?

Note that deliberate practice is intentional practice.  It is repetitive, gets feedback right away, focuses on mastering certain skills (not going to a batting cage on your own time) and it isn’t much fun.  It is a lot of work to get to be an expert in anything.  The fact is that top performers in their field have gotten to where they are by being extremely dedicated to doing what they are doing.  If you aren’t an expert in anything now, you’re behind the 8-ball.  If you’re not a professional golfer early in life, you will probably never catch up (which means I am hosed… not that I care to play golf anyhow but if I did I would suck forever unless I quite my job and practiced 5 hours per day).

But there’s more to it than that.  In Colvin’s book, he refutes the notion that anyone is born with any predispositional talent.  Nobody is a natural singer, golfer, hockey player, stock trader, etc.  It is a skill that is acquired over time.  If we combine this with Gladwell’s book, there seems to be a multiplier effect.  People that start early and gain early success get more coaching, more feedback, enjoy it more and are therefore more likely to stick with it.  They weren’t born with it, it is an ability that is acquired through hard work.  Natural talent is something we like to attribute to people (oh, she’s a gifted singer/speaker) but it isn’t true.

Demographics also matters.  It counts when you were born.  For people who were born just after the turn of the 20th century, just as they were hitting their stride in their 20’s and 30’s, the Great Depression hit.  That economic hit set everyone back.  During the Depression, birth rates plummeted.  However, infrastructure had been built up for the birth boom that was occurring before that.  So, for people born during the Depression, they had their choice of schools and facilities that were designed for a larger population.  The number of people in their generation, however, was much smaller.  Therefore, with less population there is less competition, which means that it made it easier to get into prestigious universities, or get funding for business, etc, because there were fewer people grabbing at the pie.

It’s actually an interesting study.  Super success is related to a number of things:

  • How much you practice something and when you started
  • When you were born and where you were born
  • The economic situation around you
  • Your home environment

The fact is that it is very rare to spontaneously become exceptional.  You need to start early and devote much time to it, and then be in conditions that allow you to succeed.

It doesn’t mean that you are doomed if haven’t followed this pattern.  You can still be very productive in real life and achieve a great deal.  You just won’t necessarily become a super achiever like the rarity amongst us.

But not all of us want to become super achievers anyhow.  And that’s just fine with me.

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The dilemma

So I’ve been talking about the Nouveau Riche program and my inability to weigh the risk/reward ratio.

The first thing I did when I got home is do a Google search, I mean Live Search, about a review of the program.  I found some negative reviews and then I found some rebuttals to those reviews.  I saw new members say how excited they were about the program, I saw disgruntled members, but I didn’t see a lot on long time members and how much success they had with the Investor Concierge program, which is what interests me the most.

I have a lot of experience in investing, I am not a newbie.  I have a good idea about how equities move (or maybe not since every investing decision I have made lately has been wrong).  What concerned me was how one of the presenter said a few things regarding investing that are popular with the public but are actually a myth.

He said that he invested in gold and it was a great time because gold is now trading at an all-time high.  Because the dollar is going down (and presumably will keep going down), gold is a great investment.  The problem is that this is a myth.  The first problem with this is sure, gold is a good investment but if you bought back in the 1980s you had to wait nearly twenty years for your investment to actually pay off.  That’s a lot of opportunity cost.  It wasn’t such a good investment for a long time.

Secondly, gold is a commodity.  It is subject to supply and demand like any other commodity.  It may have run up quickly but it can correct just as sharply as the rally.  In other words, it is not a done deal that gold is a great investment.  Different US administrations can promote a reverse dollar policy (like the strong dollar policy under the Clinton administration) and suddenly gold as an investment is not so good anymore.

My point is that if you are going to spout investment strategies, you need to support them with facts.  Real estate has averaged 6.5% appreciation historically, but stocks have averaged 9% (not sure if that is including dividends).  Oil may be going up and the dollar is going down, but they don’t have any significant historical correlation.  When the bond yield is higher than the earnings yield of the stock market, stocks are cheap and tend to outperform bonds and vice versa.  And finally, real estate investment trusts (REITs) do not show to significantly increase your total portfolio if you own them in addition to stocks, but they can smooth out the volatility.

So you see, my worry is that people who have gotten wealthy get wealthy by chance and are on the leading edge of the bell curve.  Investing should be supported with actual facts, not feel goodism and investment myths.

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The library is fantastic!

Ever since I moved to Redmond (a suburb of Seattle) I have had a library membership. I’ve never had a library membership before, other than when I was in school when I had it be de facto. Having this membership is great.

Before, I usually used to buy books that I want to read, but now I always check the library first. I’ve checked out and read about a half dozen books since being here. And today, I wandered in simply to browse around. I checked out the Investing section and sure enough, I came across two books that I had been wanting to read. These books usually run about $40 in the bookstores, whereas checking them out of the library is free! From a cost/benefit perspective, the library wins on that count.

I used to think that I wouldn’t want to merely borrow books, I would want to buy them and own them. That’s true to a small extent, but I think that many books I read, I only read once. The exceptions are my books on investing and magic. I have also found that borrowing books from the library, rather than owning them, doesn’t bother me so much as I thought it would. If there’s a book I really want, then I would go out and buy it. Until then, the price is right.

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Today, I finally managed to get rid of all my old university textbooks that I no longer want or use (I kept a couple).  To that, I say "Good riddance."  I gave them all away to a guy whose just entering his first year in the same program I took.

I gave them all away for free.  Now, when I say that statement, some of you may be saying "Wow, you gave them away for free?  Those are worth a lot of money!  You paid such-and-such dollars for them and now you’ve taken a loss on them!"

That’s not the way I see it.  If you have something in your house that you want to sell but you won’t sell it because it would be too much of a loss compared to what you paid for it, it doesn’t matter.  If you are currently not using it, you have already lost the money on it.  For example, if you have an old computer that you paid $1500 for but you never use it, but you won’t sell it because all you could get is $100 and that represents a $1400 loss.  But you never use it anyways, so you’ve already lost $1500.  The fact that it is not being used at all represents a real loss, not a potential one.  The fact that you still have it doesn’t preclude the fact that it’s not being used and therefore isn’t worth the $1500 you paid.

So, here’s my advice to people who have stuff they want to get rid of but don’t want to take the financial hit – you have already taken the financial hit by no longer using the piece of equipment.  Plus, it’s taking up room, so it’s a double whammy.  Get whatever you can for it and move on, it’ll be worth more to you that way.

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