Extinction, Evolution, and Being Right

I recently finished The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. It was good, but much of it was over my head. My feeble understanding of family, genus, clan, kingdom, and poor knowledge of ages and epochs of the earth meant I missed a lot.

The book (from what I did understand) had two key points.

First. The explicit one was that we may be entering another extinction. Kolbert’s thesis is that the earth has undergone five major extinctions and we are currently in a sixth. Rather than asteroids or glaciers, this one is being caused by humans.

When I finished I didn’t have the same conclusions at Kolbert, but again, she understood the material much better than me. What I did conceptualize was the second and implicit point of the book.

Second. Solving difficult problems requires multidisciplinary thinking. The best answers for things often come from domains outside the one the problem resides in.

In the book Kolbert explains how anatomy helped zoology clear an identification obstacle and how nuclear explosions helped paleontology. Neither of the solutions  were in the domain of the questions.

Unrelated domains were synthesized to synergize a solution.

So what? 

The takeaway from this is to acknowledge that science is hard and you don’t know where the answers are. Scientific discoveries exist in a pitch black stadium. You need scientists who walk around and feel. Some to crawl around and smell. Some  to edge along the wall and listen. Each way someone gets around a room is a different domain of science.

 

Then it takes effort to understand why a “feeler” solved a “listener” problem. That’s difficult.  From Copernicus to Darwin, scientific discoveries are condemned without refute. Rather we should prove why they aren’t true. We should find the “black swans.”

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The Machine Always Wins

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I finished reading Billion Dollar Ball by Gilbert Gaul, and while the book is about college football, there is one wonderful chapter on women’s rowing. Gaul is clearly awed by many parts of the sport, and after reading it I was too. Gaul writes:

“The striking thing to me about women’s rowing was how it accomplished so much with so little. In so many ways it seemed the model for how sports should be, not a form of entertainment but a personal journey, and at a fraction of the cost of football.”

For example, Gaul watches one practice where athletes compete against the machine. They row until they can’t row anymore. The girls have a saying about this workout; “the machine always wins.”

Unlike John Henry, the girls always lose. I wanted to lose too.

Inspired by the book I hopped on the rowing machine at my gym, and went to work. I grunted. I dripped. I pulled, tugged, leaned. I went as hard as I could for 2KM, then I was done. The machine won.

The same is true for life. Only time stands in for the machine. We can’t out-run it. We can’t out-work it. We can’t out-think it, or out-spend it. Time, like the machine, always wins.

So what’s the point?

I wondered that at seven in the morning, alone on a rowing machine.

I don’t know.

Life isn’t about winning, because we can’t win. Like the machine always win in rowing, time always wins in life. Our goals need to be different then. The women rowers don’t try to beat the machine, they know they can’t. They face an impossible challenge. Instead they get on because getting on makes them better. When they row, they transform.

That’s the challenge time gives us too. It’s a chance to see how much we can transform. It’s how strong, wise, and humble we can get. Not for points or scores (remember, we can’t win), but to get better.

Our opportunity is to see what we can do. Our opportunity is to row.

What I’ve been reading and writing.

Crap, I missed another week of blogging. For good reason, I wrote a lot of other stuff. I wrote posts on Dan Coyle (talent is made, not born), Malcolm Gladwell (how to write well), Naveen Jain (dream big, but learn the basics), and Scott Adams (more good stuff in my 3rd post about him) at The Waiter’s Pad.

I’m reading Superforecasting, Chaos, Introduction to NLP and Words of Radiance (fiction).

Reading Donald Trump

Yikes. I forgot to blog last weekend. It was because I did a lot of other writing – and simply forgot. One great thing that happened this week was that I read Donald Trump’s book.

The book was only recently recommended, but the idea of reading it has been brewing for a long time.

Last year when I was training for my marathon, a friend asked if I was getting any coaching. “There’s a trainer at my gym,” I said, “but he’s really into lifting weights.” My friend replied, “don’t confuse his goals for your own.”

I felt like an idiot.

The trainer might know a lot about running, fitness, stretching, and cross training even though that’s not the path he follows. I knew this in other areas (finances, landscaping, reading suggestions) but not in this one. Why not?

My problem was that I was conflating goals and knowledge. Hmm, I thought, I should test how deep my bias goes. What might be a good evaluation of that?

Could I read Trump: The art of the deal, and learn something even though Trump and I have little in common? Yes, of course I could. Not only that, there were many things we have in common. Donald Trump and I both view skin in the game, asymmetrical rewards, and optionality the same way.

Certainly I don’t agree with everything he says and does (and wears), but that’s true for everyone. The trick is to figure out what’s good and what’s garbage, and you do that by reading a lot and widely. I wouldn’t normally have read Trump’s book. But I did and I l saw familiar things, those things are probably “more true” than others.

What I’ve been reading and writing.

At Productivityist; The value of working in a hotel room. Good health and producitivty go together.

At The Waiter’s Pad; Phil Rosenthal, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Brett Steenbarger, Aruthur Samberg, and Tim O’Reilly.

Not reading anything at the moment because I just finished Trump.

Financial Advice

My recent readings and listenings (via podcasts) has focused on a lot of financial advice. It’s made me realize that a lot of people don’t know a lot, and that includes me.In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis laid bare how few huge institutional investors knew about high frequency trading. These are people who manage billions of dollars, but don’t know how a few cents are added to most of their trades.
At Abnormal Returns, Tadas Viskanta (former hedge fund manager) said that people may give advice for when to get into the market, but don’t give you advice for when to get out. That’s like a personal trainer who tells you to start running but not when to stop.
One years ago Clorox and Campbell Soup stocks were labeled "sell" by 2/3 of advisors. Over a year those stocks returned 18 and 26%.
Then there was a beacon in the ever present storm of advice. Jason Zweig said to learn enough about the market so you can say, "I don’t know and I don’t care."
At first I rolled my eyes about this because of the tinge of ignorance in the expression. As I learned more though, I realized how right it was. Almost no one regularly knows what’s going to happen. That’s the first part, "I don’t know" is an admission that I don’t know – and neither do you.
The second part, "I don’t care." comes from knowing enough to invest accordingly. Movements up, down, red, black, bearish, or bullish don’t matter. So I don’t care.
That’s my financial advice.

What I read this week.
I finished The Name of the Wind, a fantasy story about an old inn keeper who is more than meets the eye. It was good and devoured a few late nights and spare minutes in the school parking lot. It also has a narrative arc I hadn’t read before
I finished Flash Boys too. This was Michael Lewis’s story of the team that figured out what the high frequency traders were doing and how to stop them. It’s a typical Michael Lewis book. It’s entertaining, explains something complex in a clear way, and has some great characters.
Both were good.

What I wrote this week.
At The Waiters Pad I published notes on Naval Ravikant, Sanjay Bakshi, and Tren Griffin interviews. All 3 men are really smart and gave good interviews to write up. I also learned a thing or two.
I also wrote about 3 Things I Learned from Brad Feld and how breaking my iPhone has made me more productive.

Ad blocking feedly

  • The best marketing isn’t advertising, it’s a well-designed and remarkable product.

Update twp with this quote

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Ad blocking
// Seth Godin

By most accounts, more and more people are automatically blocking the ads in their browser.

Of course, people have been blocking ads forever. By ignoring them.

Fifteen years ago, when I began writing about Permission Marketing, I pointed out that when ads are optional, it’s only anticipated, personal and relevant ones that will pay off.

And advertisers have had fifteen years to show self restraint. They’ve had the chance to not secretly track people, set cookies for their own benefit, insert popunders and popovers and poparounds, and mostly, deliver us ads we actually want to see.

Alas, it was probably too much to ask. And so, in the face of a relentless race to the bottom, users are taking control, using a sledgehammer to block them all. It’s not easy to develop a white list, not easy to create an ad blocker that is smart enough to merely block the selfish and annoying ads. And so, just as the default for some advertisers is, “if it’s not against the law and it’s cheap, do it,” the new generation of ad blockers is starting from the place of, “delete all.”

Ad blockers undermine a fundamental principle of media, one that goes back a hundred years: Free content in exchange for attention. The thing is, the FCC kept the ad part in check with TV, and paper costs did the same thing for magazines and newspapers. But on the web, more and more people have come to believe that the deal doesn’t work, and so they’re unilaterally abrogating it. They don’t miss the ads, and they don’t miss the snooping of their data.

This reinforces the fundamental building blocks of growth today:

  • The best marketing isn’t advertising, it’s a well-designed and remarkable product.
  • The best way to contact your users is by earning the privilege to contact them, over time.
  • Making products for your customers is far more efficient than finding customers for your products.
  • Horizontally spread ideas (person to person) are far more effective than top-down vertical advertising.
  • More data isn’t the point. Data to serve explicit promises is the point.
  • Commodity products can’t expect to easily build a profitable ‘brand’ with nothing but repetitive jingles and noise.
  • Media properties that celebrate their ads (like Vogue) will continue to thrive, because the best advertising is the advertising we would miss if it was gone.

Media companies have always served the master who pays the bill… the advertiser. At some point, the advertiser will wake up and choose to do business in a new way, and my guess is that the media that we all rely on will change in response. But in the meantime, it seems as though many online consumers have had enough.

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The Mental Food Pyramid

This week I finished reading Mean Genes. It’s the fourth book I’ve read this month and I may have found another nudge to read.

I love to read, in part because I’m good at it. Not that I’m smart. I have ample evidence of saying, thinking, and doing dumb things. What I mean, is that I know just enough so that reading isn’t difficult.

For example, I’ve been reading a lot more about biology lately (Mean Genes, Gut Feeling, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf) and how it relates to how we act. I know almost nothing about biology, just ask my wife. However, when I read book after book I start to understand the parts that overlap a little better.

After these books and others I can understand how insulin works in our blood stream. I can visualize our central nervous system. I can imagine the effects of testosterone. This knowledge isn’t enough to pass a college biology course, but like pieces of a puzzle it’s creating small chunks of the big picture.

And I can get even better.

I’ve started to think about the things I consume (books, Twitter, blogs, television, movies, Facebook) like the food pyramid. The longer each one of those things takes, the lower on the pyramid it is.

Books are the base of the pyramid. Tweets are the top. And I match my effort accordingly. That might look like 2 hours of reading and 20 minutes of tweeting.

Having this mental image is a good reminder for why reading is important. It’s not just “oh, I should sit down with a book.” Rather it’s a system where I know that the base needs to be bigger than the top and I act in accordance with that.

What I’ve been reading.

As I mentioned, Mean Genes is a good proxy for the biology I forget/never learned.

I have The Origin of the Species (more biology) and Flash Boys (by Michael Lewis) on my Kindle.

I’ve also rediscovered the wonderful world of government reports and academic papers. My favorite this week was a paper showing that investors who turned over more than 3/4 of their portfolio each year had 6% lower returns than the market overall.

What I’ve been writing.

I posted notes on Scott Galloway and Jason Zweig’s conversations with Barry Ritholtz. Two notes: Zweig is someone I just found and I’m working through his back catalog of writings, he’s very good.

Galloway mentioned that sports apparel (Nike, Under Armor, etc) will outsell denim this year. He’s right! I look around the school when I pick up my kids and – especially with younger kids – there is a lot of athletic apparel. There’s no way those kids will choose jeans as they get older.

At Productivityist I wrote about why time tracking has helped me get-things-done.

// photo is of me sanding my new desk.

Cultural Differences- Paleo edition

My daughter missed a homework question. It was something about dinner rolls. We never eat dinner rolls.

We’ve never had a moment where we weren’t part of "the culture." I was proud.

I felt that way because – I think – we’re right about this. I’ve written many times about our experience on the Whole30 so I won’t rehash it here. But it makes us feel better. I have more energy, think more clearly, and act nicer when I eat good foods.

This issue of dinner rolls piggy backs on another point we often go around on; school lunch. Our school lunch isn’t very good. Hot Pockets were on the menu one day. Our daughters don’t buy often – again, we think we’re right – because we’ve seen how food matters.

During my year of Americorps service I saw a school transform the food that was served. It was a challenge, and that school was in a city primed for that kind of change. It’s hard to change the status quo. It’s easy just to think you’re right.

And this has nothing to do with dinner rolls. It’s about other areas people think they’re right. Politics, religion, culture. Those are the big things that people hold tightly to and imbed in their children.

It’s hard to see implicit messages that you agree with. You just think, "that’s the way it is." But it’s not that way for everyone. Once you don’t get something that you’re different.

Culture doesn’t need to change. We don’t need to accommodate everyone. Toes can be stepped on. We just need to know that we’re doing it. Food for thought for sure.

What I’ve been reading.
Gut Feelings by Gerd Gigerenzer has been very good. Much of the research by Gigerenzer was used by Gladwell in Blink. This book has a great pace and tone. I’m enjoying it very much.

What I’ve been writing.
I took notes on Gary Vaynerchuk’s talk about his history, hustle, and doing good work.

I wrote up 3 Things I Learned from Bill Belichick (all from Halberstam’s book).

I took notes on Penn Jillette’s conversation with James Altucher. Jillette talked about living in his car, clown college, and more. It was a very good short interview.

First Fast

(Meant to post this the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Forgot. Here it is on the Monday night.)

I completed my first fast this week. It was a 24 hours, water only fast and I did it mostly because my wife did. Mostly because she has this uncanny ability to egg me into challenges she is much better at (see also: ping pong).Fasting is generally considered a good thing. I don’t know the science behind it, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.
Throughout the day I felt good, maybe a big sharper mentally than normal but not especially so. After our Whole 30 experience my diet is nearly free of processed (lightly and intensively) carbohydrates and I mostly feel good. The fast maybe enhanced that, but that feeling could be participation bias.
The hardest part was being around the kids when they ate. Add in bacon for dinner, after school snacks, and a tiny hunger after my workout, and I did have a few moments that required some willpower to resist snacking. But I did it and learned more importantly that I could.
That’s where the most valuable takeaway was for me; I don’t need to eat. Sometimes it feels (social convenience, boredom) that I should eat. Even right now as I write this, I could eat something. But I don’t have to.
In August I also did a week of cold showers. At first I didn’t want to get in, but once I turned my shoulder and entered the water like an action hero might go through a door, I was fine. After that week I learned that cold showers feel quite good.

What I read and wrote this week.
I finished The Hour Between Dog and Wolf. It’s the story of our biologic reactions in present day settings. It suggested answers to how fight or flight matters in financial decisions and whether or not it’s a good thing.
I’m also reading The Education of a Coach, the story of Bill Belichick and The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham.

This was a good week for writing.
– I published notes about Stanley McChrystal’s conversation with Tim Ferriss which introduced me to the idea of “red teaming.”
– I took notes on Joshua Foer’s conversation with James Altucher.
– I also wrote up notes from Michael Mauboussin’s 2014 talk with Barry Ritholtz. Mauboussin is always informative and this was a great hour to listen to.
– Over at Medium I wrote up three things I learned from The Hour Between Dog and Wolf.

Foolscap Weekends – A new experiment to tame the firehose of information

I heard Tyler Cowen say – more on where below – that he’s well suited for the “firehose of information” that is dominant today. His comment struck me because lately I’ve been suffering from a feeling of discombobulation. What news should I follow? Where should I get it? How should I act on it?

My chief concern among this is how to assimilate the new things I learn with the things I already understand. When I read a book like When Genius Failed or Filters Against Folly, how do I match those things with news about the stock market or gun violence?

The answer might be in what Steven Pressfield calls “the foolscap method.” For Pressfield this means to take a book, project, or business and outline it on a single sheet of paper. This, he says, gets you over the hump of resistance and starts the work for the project.

What I want to do, is do something similar, but only for a weekly review of the firehose. If the firehose of information (books, articles, tweets, videos, etc) fills up a pool, then I wants the foolscap method to act like a filter to get only the good stuff out. Find what’s drinkable.

How?

My goal is for weekends to be more summarizing of what I learned, read, and saw and less writing, editing, and watching.

Weekly Review #40 – What I’ve been reading and writing.

This week I started reading The Hour Between Dog and Wolf. It’s the story of how biology plays a role in our decision making. The big idea – I think, I only just started – is that testosterone plays a roll in bull markets by enhancing the invincibility some traders feel. On the other hand cortisol plays a role in the in bear markets by making people more risk adverse. This sort of biologic analysis is new to me – I prefer psychology – but interesting none the less. It pairs well with, Rainbows End (the story of the 1929 crash) which I’m picking through much more slowly and When Genius Failed (the story of a 1998 hedge fund crash).

I finished Thaler’s Misbehaving, it was very good. Not so much for the behavioral economics and biases, most of which I was familiar with, but the why. To see the evolution of an idea from someone who lived through – and propagated many – was very good.

Better Parenting via Broken iPhones

New photo added to //embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Well, I broke my iPhone. I tried to remove some dust that was mucking up my camera but, after some unscrewing, prying, opening, tilting, spraying (canned air), praying, closing, and powering on – it did not power on. Actually it did, but it looked like a glitch in the Matrix. Not the good kind of glitch that the movies are built around, but a real glitch.

The mistake, as most things do, reminded me of parenting. You see, there was no reason ex ante to think that the repair wouldn’t work. The video demonstration of the fix was only five minutes long in itself. How much can you mess up in five minutes?

Apparently an iPhone.

I did not know this. If I had known the outcome, I wouldn’t have done what I did. That’s the thing with kids, they never know the outcome. They need time to mess up, screw up, and blow up to learn. I never would have known the perilous balance of an iPhone innard without opening it up. Now I know.

My kids need to mess up too. It’s part of growing up. The issue is that I weigh in on their choices ex post. As the expression goes, hindsight is 20/20. Of course they wouldn’t write on the walls or jump on their sister if they had perfect information. But they didn’t. The acted with good intentions, but harvested a bad outcome.

I will do to remember that, and I’ll have a constant reminder in my pocket.

Weekly review #39, what I’ve been reading and writing. 

I finished When Genius Failed, the story of Long Term Capital Management, a hedge fund from the mid-90’s. It’s an interesting story but unlike some other books, I don’t know what the big takeaways are. Watch out for hubris, don’t be a know it all – what else?

One of the big ideas is the idea that data and knowledge aren’t absolute attributes. They’re good to have, but not the only things you want. Pattern recognition is a big skill. Even in 94-98 there was a lot of data to read and story to tell. Had the LTCM guys thought more in terms of patterns (particularly the blow ups) they wouldn’t have blown up.

I’ve added a few other financial history books to my list and as I read more – much like my experience with kids, cooking, education, psychology, and economics – I’ll see more patterns in books like When Genius Failed.

One of them is Misbehaving by Richard Thaler. It’s doesn’t introduce a lot of psychology or economics that I’m unfamiliar with BUT it does explain the birth of those topics. This is a big deal. As each war comes out of the previous war and as each financial crisis is influenced by more than just the economics, so too do idea births matter. The radio wave is a good example about how the invention influences other things.

This week was a slow week for writing. I published a post about how my productivity increased when I stopped watching football. I also speculated about what Bill Simmons will do at HBO. Not much this week because I’m working on a longer project.

// Photo is of our backyard sunflowers.