Wednesday 16 April 2014

Vacation Readings

So here are the books I read and what I took away from them:

Ian Burma: Year Zero: A History of 1945

Great book about the word as WWII was wrapping up and societies were dealing with the proverbial dawn of a new day. Issues ranging from shame, elation, despair, embarrassment, devastation, and sheer confusion intermingling as the foundations of a new world order are laid.

My main take aways from the book were:

- The Americans were incredibly progressive. They had emerged without a doubt as one of the premier powers and used it to ensure the age of empire would be rolled back, they didn't rape and pillage (at least in relative terms), and really were quite plausibly the obvious 'good guy' fighting for freedom and all that good stuff we hear from them to this day.

- People were assholes. Yeah, even the 'good guys' and their blatant racism towards the Asians. No one was too concerned about the jews. The raping, the pillaging, the revenge, ignoring the plight of victims, and just the general neglect for fellow human beings is palpable. It makes you appreciate how far we've progressed.

- The sexual stuff/slut shaming. Of course the raping was awful and disgusting. But it was also the way these women were treated afterwards. From those that willfully gave themselves to occupiers and liberators to make ends meet, and to those taken advantage of in occupation or 'liberation' the male gender framing the wrongs/discretions done to their fellow compatriots, no no no, their fellow human beings, was an insult and a shame inflicted on themselves.

The added focus on this stuff was it got me wrestling with some cognitive dissonance that I've been wrestling with. First world travellers and third world prostitution. I remember the first time I landed in Thailand. The disgust was visceral. Seeing what appeared to be 60 year old dudes walking around with with young girls.

So for the cognitive dissonance: I'm pro prostitution in say Canada between consenting adults. I'm pro 'sweatshop' type settings where as long as no coercion is present the situation is mutually beneficial. But I was anti old rich white dude and young poor brown girl.

While I'm not judging the girl, I'm still impose my "disgusted" feeling on an activity that as long it's between two consenting adults I should extricate myself from. While I abhor any situation where 'at birth' variation determines outcomes and power dynamics, such is the economic reality. If as a society we can get past what two consenting adults are doing behind closed doors we can focus on the shit that really needs to stop. The coercion and/or child abuse. This story from Iraq is a reminder of the messed up things that people are imposed on for simply being born somewhere (or as a certain gender, or as a child of parents with a certain religion, etc.).

Until we get passed the things that made us feel 'weird' and 'disgusted'. It's going to be alot tougher to combat the really bad stuff. So color me pro consenting adult prostitution world wide!

 Tyler Cowen: Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation

Sort of a follow up book to Cowen's The Great Stagnation this book didn't quite do it for me. It focuses on succeeding now and going forward. Basically, quality of life will improve all around but incomes are likely to stagnate for the bulk of the people. Those that can figure out how to incorporate, interpret, and leverage growing machine and computing power and capability will likely see income share grow quickly.

It's not that I didn't agree with anything in it. I just didn't really glean any real insight from it. Careerwise it framed my choices (some accidental) in a manner that bodes pretty well for the future. Sales type of jobs which will be difficult to automate should be both fairly safe and be conducive to building a useful skillset.

Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi: By Elizabeth Economy - By All Means Necessary: How China's Resource Quest is Changing the World

From this book I learned that one unqualified (underqualified?) assumption can render an entire book disappointing (an otherwise interesting and insightful book).

The assumption is made right at the start, and you'll quickly realize that it's the antithesis of the Peak Oil Dynamic mindset from page 26:
"Some experts contend that the shortfall was due to strong limits on how much affordable oil lies underground. But that is a minority position; most experts believe world oil resources remain vast. Instead the low amount of oil production is usually chalked up to decisions by oil producers (and occasionally to wars) that put oil off-limits or otherwise deter developers from producing it."
The sources cited are: Blake Clayton, Panic: A Century of Oil Market Madness and Victor, Hults, and Thurber: Oil and Governance: State-Owned Enterprises and World Energy Supply. I couldn't find much on the Clayton Source and I wasn't curious enough about the Victor, Hults, and Thurber publication to get past the 150 pound paywall. In the notes Economy and Levi write:
"Even governments that allow private resource development can fall prey to the same dynamic if they depend on resource revenues for their budgets. Rising resource prices can reduce their need to open more land, or tempt them to raise taxes and other levies on production. These sorts of steps deter investment and curb the tendency of production to rise with price."
Look, I'm not saying this isn't an impossible scenario. But that's the extend of their explanation for, in my opinion, a huge assumption. At the very least two more accessible and (not to be snobish) more mainstream and knowledgable sources seem warranted. Even proponents of plentiful oil (like Danel Yergen) for example acknowledge how expensive and remote most of it is. This book just assumes producers just don't want to produce it. Big leap!

Of course I'm biased towards the opposite assumption, but at the very least this should be flushed out at a much deeper level. No discussion on why the price stability talk of OPEC and the Saudi's allowed the allowable range to increase threefold. No discussion on the logic behind companies and governments focusing on top line revenue rather then net cash flow from oil. I don't know, it just seems like we're discounting text book economics rather glibly.

Other then that it was a pretty pro-China book in terms of their impact on global markets. Perhaps it was just a middle of the road book that takes on the pro-China sentiment simply because of the predominately negative narrative in the popular media.

Either way, I do believe that the oil market will be the market most likely to experience tumult due to supply side factors. However, as growth shifts from investment to consumption the many base minerals that China's consumption has come to dominate may face some serious downside risk. Everything hinges on China's rebalance.

George Soros:Underwriting Democracy: Encouraging Free Enterpirse And Democratic Reform Among The Soviets In Eastern Europe

I was kind of hoping this was going to be about the actual establishing of each country branch of the Open Society Institute, but it kind of glossed over that part and was more of a philosophical tract on Soros's take on the time.

Still interesting. But nothing new. I have previously read The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means in which Soros's theory of reflexivity is also spelled out. It's quite similar to my view (perhaps back when I read the New Paradigm helped me establish my view)  which I would characterize as a probabilistic or more bayesian view on history, decision making, and life in general.

Reflexivity refers to the reflexive interplay between perception and reality. Perception shapes reality and vice versa. Thus in an open society where actors are free to choose their actions we're likely to get a constant boom-bust cycle that needn't be a bad thing.

Soros also describes how 'far from equilibrium' systems can evolve when that interplay between reality and perception grows sufficiently apart; citing dogmatic beliefs and totalitarian control that limits dissent and critical views as the prime cause of this. Essentially with no feedback mechanism market type forces in all pursuits, be they economic, intellectual or artistic, stagnation will follow. His investment strategy has always been to seek to exploit pricing differentials caused when market perception deviates from "fundamental" reality.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is just the reminder of how laughable the far right was reaching back when they were spinning the Soros controls Obama and they are secretly turning American into a Communist plot line. I'm thinking you could make a plausible case that no one put more of their own money on the line to fight communism then George (a book providing more details about the specifics would have been fun!).

Benny Lewis: Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World

The message/lesson is simple and clear. Man up and figure mandarin out. Once the new job gets going I'll be designing my 3-5 month mandarin program.

BJ Penn:Why I Fight: The Belt Is Just an Accessory by Jay Dee B.J. Penn, Dave Weintraub Reprint edition (2011)

I ran out of books I brought and saw this one in Cebu. Basically, BJ is a beauty. I respect the fight game more then any other sport and BJ really does embody alot of the qualities I enjoy. He did trail off into the hype game a bit more in the later years but you can't deny the balls of a UFC Lightweight and Welterweight title holder who also fought Lyoto Machida at Heavyweight!

It also brought to the forefront of my mind the issue of overtraining. Penn's image has long been one of an undertrained lazy athelete getting by on talent. Penn's take is the polar opposite. Obviously, his words need to be taken with a grain of salt but it certainly shifted my opinion significantly.

I had always admired Penn's let's just scrap attitude. If you offered him Fedor at heavyweight during his reign or Anderson Silva at 185 during his reign Penn would have probably insta-signed that contract like a kid in a candy store. Plus there's his love of cheeseburgers and of fighting for the sake of fighting. I can get behind both.

I had found his hyping of the Sean Sherk fight to be a bit manufactured and his whining after the GSP fight about greasing finally put me off of him. But as is usually the case understanding his perspective a bit better made me much more sympathetic.

There's always a back story. Getting the perspective of key actors is integral to forming a strong opinion. It never hurts to be reminded of this.

David Linden: The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good

This book was interesting in that it basically placed addiction on a continuum that placed everything from eating unhealthy foods, exercise and gambling under the same addiction umbrella as alcohol, nicotine and crack.

My biggest take away from this book was actually less sympathy for people with addiction claiming victimhood and an increase in sympathy for those battling their addiction.

 Essentially, the chemical functions that lead the brain to addiction are simply that it feels good to do the action and it doesn't feel good to deny yourself of that action. Added interest was the portion that shows how the human mind then adapts by heightened anticipation and a deadened physiological reaction to the action creating a feedback loop requiring increased exposure to chase the desired outcome.

Now the longer you partake in said action, the harder it is to quit. But it's still a mind over matter thing. Society certainly needs to support those trying to ween themselves off their destructive habits and minimize the instances of habitual encouragement (childhood exposure to certain habits increase probability of later occurrence), but addiction is essentially a result of the individuals actions.

I know the feeling as well. With online poker I'd always slowly build a bankroll and cash out a breakeven portion or lock in a win (so I could play with house money). But once this happened the more I won, the higher the stakes I'd play until eventually the stakes would overwhelm my bankroll and I crapped out (or one time I came home drunk and online blackjacked it away!).

But chasing that rush typified every online run I had. I'm sure my brain was following the path described in this book. The habit was addictive in the sense that once I got in the zone I'd devote for too much time to poker (effecting other aspects of my life) but not, in that I was conscious of, and sacrificed other activities in a non-destructive manner. I also never brought more to the table then I could comfortably lose.

If we look at addiction as a continuum and rid ourselves of the black and white approach that society seems to have (and I held previously) I wonder if this might create a more honest and open dialogue on the subject and bring about better solutions.

Peter Sims: Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Great book about incorporating actions with an iterative probabilistic mindset (which I strive towards). The idea is to form a grand scheme, but keep it flexible. Formulate some concrete initial steps and a mindset to learning, adapting, and applying whatever you learn from those initial steps into the grande scheme. Reformulate your next steps and continue.

While it lends to a probabilistic approach in that the true probability of things are better discovered with constant iteration. While the real world rarely gives us multiple opportunities at huge moves and decisions. It can often provide ample opportunity to feel out that first step many times.

I also liked the notion of an affordable loss. Call it a sunk cost. The notion of finding a meaningful potential payoff (monetary or information based) while risking a small enough amount that a loss has no material impact is quite appealing. Essentially it's almost a free roll. The money is gone. Any benefit gained is simply gravy. And the information portion of this can be, and should be, invaluable.

It's a good one if you're considering a change in your life or have been kicking around an idea that you can't quite pull the trigger on trying.

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